Army officials are seeking permission to cut back on monitoring of one of Aberdeen Proving Ground's most complex and polluted sites, an old chemical munitions dump that for decades discharged contaminated groundwater into the Gunpowder River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
Based on previous results, testing can be done less frequently without imperiling the environment or endangering the public, the officials say.
But community members are concerned that less-frequent testing could pose a risk to public health and safety because the site, called Old O Field, contains a foul brew of decomposing metals and chemical warfare agents such as mustard and lewisite, and residue from solvents used over the years to try to destroy the agents.
It's the combination of the three types of contamination that makes Old O Field unusual, said Cindy Powels, cleanup project officer. "It's more complex than average sites."
But she said water testing has shown consistent results for eight years, since the Army built a $30 million permeable landfill cover and groundwater treatment system to capture and treat pollution before the water flows into the river.
Cutting back on some of the testing will not compromise the progress, or public safety, she said.
The proving ground wants to test discharged water from the treatment system once a month instead of twice, she said, and to cut back on quarterly tests of wells around the landfill that it monitors for changes or new appearances in contamination.
The Maryland Department of the Environment has approved the changes, and the Environmental Protection Agency has indicated that it will, too, she said.
Some area residents question whether cutting costs at such a toxic site is wise.
"Landfills don't get better with age," said Cal Baier-Anderson, a University of Maryland toxicologist and technical adviser to the Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition, a community group that monitors cleanup at the proving ground.
The coalition maintains that much is unknown about the site, and the potential for failure of the system is real - through a release of agent or explosion of old munitions. With recreational boaters nearby on the Gunpowder River, caution is needed, she said.
Looking to cut costs
The proposals come as Old O Field also is under review by the Army Environmental Center. APG environmental officials and the center are awaiting a report from site contractor General Physics to consider operational cost-cutting strategies. Costs for operation and maintenance have run from $1 million a year to more than $2 million a year over the past eight years, Army officials say.
Long-term monitoring is an expensive proposition for the Army, said Randy Cerar of the Army Environmental Center.
Since the Department of Defense put in more structured contamination tracking systems in the late 1980s, about $140 million has been spent on long-term monitoring at active military sites, he said. Before cleanup ends, perhaps 30 years from now, that cost is expect to rise to $500 million.
Ted Henry, a member of APG's restoration advisory board, a group of regulators and community members who work with the base on cleanup issues, said the Army has created monitoring headaches by choosing to leave contamination in the ground rather than remove it.
"That's the burden," Henry said. "If you choose not to pick a permanent solution, some of the money you save is going to long-term monitoring."
Powels said officials don't know how long treatment and monitoring of the site might continue, but it could be hundreds of years. Removing the contamination, which would have cost $2 billion, was not a realistic option, she said.
"Really, there is no safe way to dig the site up," she said. "You're talking about agent. You're talking about munitions."
Historic records on the site are incomplete, but notes in reports give haunting hints of the site's toxic past: In 1949, Army employees poured about 1,000 barrels of decontaminating agent on the munitions and ground around them to try to detoxify the chemical agents. In 1953, workers soaked the field with fuel oil and left it to burn for several days.
The Old O Field treatment system and landfill cover allow water to filter through the munitions and waste, collecting in the groundwater, which is captured in wells. The water is then pumped through several treatment steps and tested on fish, which are monitored for breathing or activity changes that would indicate any treatment lapses.
The cleaned groundwater is then discharged into the Gunpowder River.
However, the system is not without problems. Heavy rain, for instance, can overburden the system.
Three weeks ago, when lines in the system froze, 46,000 to 50,000 gallons of untreated water overflowed containment tanks and spilled into a culvert that leads to the Gunpowder River.
The spill, while not considered significant by regulators or the community, has spurred APG to invest about $40,000 to replace lines with upgraded pipes and insulation, Powels said.
Henry and Baier-Anderson said the community believes that APG takes spills seriously and has addressed the problems quickly.
Henry said he is not concerned to see the proving ground's ideas for cutting back on some testing, so long as the Army is working with regulators and the community. He said "sound and reasonable" solutions should be considered.