The Environmental Protection Agency's order this week that the Army clean up 17 hazardous-waste sites at Fort Meade and the nearby Patuxent Research Refuge has more to do with a bureaucratic entanglement than the continuing $100 million decontamination effort, several officials on both sides said.
Army officials, who have long argued that the cleanup of four parcels should be enough for the regulatory agency to take the base off its Superfund list of the nation's most polluted sites, said Wednesday that they have until the middle of September to respond to the order. They could consider several appeal options, all of which would lengthen the nearly three-year-old negotiating process with the EPA.
The Army could even go so far as to file suit, something one community official urged against at Wednesday night's meeting of the Restoration Advisory Board, a federally mandated oversight body of residents and personnel with the Army and the EPA.
"That would not be a good use of my tax dollars," said Zoe Draughon, board chairwoman, who has championed the EPA's continued involvement in the cleanup.
Robert Stroud, the environmental agency's project manager at Fort Meade, said that despite the serious nature of the contaminants throughout the base -- which include solvents and heavy metals, explosives, arsenic, PCBs, volatile organic compounds, pesticides and explosive compounds -- there was no risk to drinking water found 500 to 800 feet below the base.
A thick clay "prevents the migration of the contaminants from getting to those depths," Stroud said.
The sites marked for cleanup include landfills, ammunition dumps, former shooting ranges and even buildings where hundreds of drums of oil and fuel were buried, prompting a fine from the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Del. Pamela G. Beidle, a Democrat whose district includes the sprawling military base, said the base's pollution is "a concern" for her constituents.
"I don't think we can expect private industry to clean up and not expect the same of the government," she said. "That's a fair expectation."
The EPA and Army have been at loggerheads about the scope of the project and what level of cleanup would lead the regulatory agency to take the base off its "National Priorities List," which designates the most polluted sites nationwide.
The Army has sought to be removed as a Superfund site once it cleans up two landfills, a former laundry facility and a former office building. The EPA has long maintained that the designation would remain until all contaminated sites on the base in western Anne Arundel County had been made safe.
Both sides agreed that the Army has moved ahead with the cleanup by investigating contamination levels and assessing the risks posed to those who could be exposed.
On Wednesday night, several officials from the three companies that have been contracted to help the Army assess contamination levels gave presentations on investigations into two sites: a buried 1940s-era dump site in a field between evacuated houses and Manor View Elementary School and a former pesticide shop, neither of which is among the four original parcels identified by the EPA when Fort Meade became a Superfund site in 1998.
The methane levels found just a few feet away from the homes -- vacant since late 2005 -- remain high, despite a vacuuming system meant to limit the chemical's dispersion.
And contractors determined that in a worst-case scenario, students, future residents or construction workers are still at risk of being exposed to numerous harmful chemicals, such as arsenic or pesticides. The exposure risk is a benchmark used to direct cleanup efforts, and in this case only means the Army should clean up the site. Because the risk is very low, it would not necessitate an evacuation of the school, Army and EPA officials said.
Investigators made a similar determination about the now-demolished former pesticide shop, saying the risk of exposure was high enough to warrant a cleanup. Because of soil sample readings that were identified as higher than allowable contamination levels, even away from the former building site, Draughon and others urged further testing.
After the presentations, Army officials said they would conduct further studies to determine how cleanup might affect contamination at the parcels.
"Everything is on the table now," said Mick Butler, the environmental division chief at Fort Meade. "So it's up to better minds than mine to figure out how to take this to the next step."