To comply with a Justice Department ruling this week, the Pentagon might have to pick up the pace in cleaning heavy metals and other contamination at Fort Meade that fouled nearby wells and forced evacuations of base housing.
In an advisory letter to the Pentagon intended to settle a lengthy dispute among federal agencies, the Justice Department said that the military must obey an "imminent and substantial endangerment" order issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2007 for Fort Meade and other Defense Department facilities in New Jersey and Florida.
Until now, the Pentagon had argued that the EPA had only limited authority over those facilities.
The legal opinion was long sought by Maryland officials, who have complained that the Army has dragged its feet in the decades-long cleanup effort required by federal law.
Contamination of groundwater within and outside the 5,400-acre military base in Anne Arundel County led federal authorities in 1998 to add Fort Meade to the EPA's Superfund list of the most severely polluted sites in the nation.
Traces of contamination have shown up in well water outside Fort Meade, and in 2006, dozens of military families were evacuated from their homes inside the base after the discovery of underground pockets of potentially explosive methane gas.
State officials said the Army's cleanup so far has been "adequate" but until now has not been legally enforceable.
"Justice has clearly come out on the side of the EPA, so things are kind of stacked against the Army right now," said Steven R. Johnson, an assistant Maryland attorney general.
Maryland Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson hailed the letter as committing the Army to "a legally enforceable document with a schedule and deadlines."
"That's what's been missing," she said in a phone interview yesterday.
Last August, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler filed notice of an intent to sue the Army to force it to comply with aggressive EPA standards rather than simply to meet its own environmental goals.
State officials said that suit could still be filed at any time, but they are waiting to see how the Army responds to the Justice Department order.
The Army insists that it is making significant progress in cleaning up decades of contamination at Fort Meade, where some 109,000 people work, visit and live. The base houses the huge National Security Agency, the Defense Information School and other military units.
Army officials said yesterday the service has spent more than $84 million to clean 32 of the 51 contaminated sites it has identified at Fort Meade, and has budgeted $84 million to complete the remediation in six years.
"The Army wants to move out expeditiously, put a full-court press on the effort," said Tad Davis, the Army's senior environmental official. "We mean business."
In a telephone interview yesterday, Davis suggested that if there have been delays, they have been caused by EPA and Maryland authorities.
"This is not something we can just run out and do on our own," he said. "If it takes 10 months [for other agencies] to review our plan and give approval, that doesn't help us to move expeditiously."
Davis said he spoke with the state environmental secretary to emphasize that "all parties need to collaborate and get under way together."
"That's a little bit of a red herring," Wilson responded yesterday. "There's always back and forth. What this is about is having an enforceable document."
The Justice Department letter confirms that the EPA has the authority to impose the "imminent and substantial endangerment" order requiring stricter cleanup standards and allowing those standards to be applied to "a facility-wide" cleanup rather than just to specific threats or specific sites.
In effect, the order overrides past squabbles about the areas that need to be cleaned and the standards those efforts must meet.
The EPA said in a statement yesterday that it was "pleased" at the Justice Department letter, first reported by The Washington Post, and said it expected the Pentagon to "move quickly to comply" with orders issued under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin expressed satisfaction that the Pentagon "has lost its most recent stalling tactic" to avoid EPA's cleanup standards. Now, Cardin said in a statement, the Pentagon must sign an agreement with the EPA listing the next specific decontamination steps with a schedule.
Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold also hailed the Justice Department's action but said he's holding the champagne "until New Year's Eve."
Unless the Army takes "immediate action," he said, it does "a great disservice to the health and safety of our citizens - including the military personnel who work in close proximity to this polluted air and water."