A community group that closely watches environmental issues at Aberdeen Proving Ground has settled a lawsuit filed against the Army over security officers' editing of contamination map details.
The group, Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition, filed suit in August after receiving maps from the base for almost a year that showed some contamination information - but removed basic landmarks needed to interpret the maps, including roads, buildings, street names and fences.
APG security officers said, in defending the editing practice last year, that releasing maps with these sites, as well as monitoring wells, sewage outfalls and hazardous waste storage buildings, offered terrorists easy information to find potential targets.
But on Jan. 30, the U.S. Justice Department ruled that the practice would not stand.
"It addressed the issues that we were most concerned with," citizens coalition president Arlen Crabb said of the settlement. "It's up to the military to show they are in compliance."
The settlement between the coalition and the Army includes the following provisions:
Requires the Army to show on contamination site maps details such as buildings, fences, locations and names of creeks and other bodies of water, monitoring wells, street names, hazardous waste storage sites and sewage outfalls;
Allows the Army to remove some sensitive information from larger-scale maps where security is an issue, including well heads, exact locations of recoverable unexploded ordnance, "critical infrastructures" (power, telecommunications, information management systems) and some fence lines and buildings;
Stipulates that the citizens coalition use maps and related documents to make cleanup information and concerns available to the public.
The coalition also agrees in the settlement not to post maps on the Internet, allaying the Army's concern about widespread distribution of sensitive information.
APG, a 72,500-acre military base, is one of the military's most complex cleanup sites. It is home to numerous Superfund National Priority List sites and a legacy of pollution - including a chemical weapons stockpile, unexploded ordnance and groundwater fouled by solvents and rocket-fuel propellant - from nearly a century of research and testing of weapons, vehicles and other equipment used on the battlefield.
The citizens coalition was formed more than a decade ago after the Environmental Protection Agency declared much of APG's acreage Superfund sites. The group was represented in the suit by the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic.
"It is a very positive upshot for both us and the Army," said Rena I. Steinzor, director of the law clinic. "I think it will get the community back on track in collaborating with the Army and communicating with the Army about their concerns about cleanup."
Ken Stachiw, head of APG's environmental remediation program, said the suit cut to the heart of trying to keep the public involved in the cleanup process without compromising security concerns.
He said he was still reviewing the settlement and conferring with APG's lawyers and security officers. His initial reaction, he said, is that the settlement addresses some concerns but leaves others in a gray area.
"We still can't hand out maps with production wells on it and aerial maps," Stachiw said.
He said other wrinkles also remain as the citizens coalition and the Restoration Advisory Board, another key group that monitors the cleanup at APG, move forward.
While the citizens coalition is a community-based organization, the Restoration Advisory Board is a mix of regulators, Army officials and community members. Several coalition members sit on the advisory board, which was not part of the suit.
Communication between the two contingents has been limited during the suit, members say, and efforts to regroup have been hampered by apparent miscues.
For instance, the intent of a Thursday night meeting by a subgroup of the advisory board was not made clear to some board members, and as a result, citizen coalition members were advised not to attend, "because it [was] a closed meeting among a select group of people to decide which information would be disclosed," Steinzor said.
But Ted Henry, an advisory board member and creator of the tiered approach to ranking and releasing sensitive information, said with the settlement in hand, all the group members need to come together - without Army or university lawyers or other Army officials.
"No RAB functions well if there's not an atmosphere of working trust," Henry said. "The RAB still has to go on. The RAB will face other hurdles."
The first one, perhaps, lies in the next map review.
Crabb, the coalition's president, pointed to recent cases where the group would receive maps and ask why certain sites near areas of contamination weren't being monitored - only to find that those sites were actually buildings, or parking lots.
Another example, he said, happened several years ago, before the map editing, when grenade pits were found in the Westwood area, near the base's boundary with Joppatowne.
Had the maps been released in the past year, he said, the critical nature of the find might have been downplayed.
"If roads weren't on the map, you never would have known the accessibility of it" or the proximity to the off-post community, he said.
"It's definitely an opportunity to move forward," Crabb said of the settlement. "I have a feeling that by the next RAB we'll know if [the Army] takes the lawsuit seriously - because it's going to be evident when we get the maps."