Fort Meade environmental cleanup finally moves forward

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer

In 2003, construction workers tore down trees to make way for new homes at Fort George G. Meade.

As they dug up the stumps, they made a startling discovery: trash. Lots and lots of trash. Animal bones. Shoes. Military dog tags. Bricks. Wood. Glass.

The workers had stumbled upon a forgotten landfill that dated to the 1940s.

An investigation that followed found that the dump stretched onto the property of Manor View Elementary School next door. Investigators also found high levels of methane – which was so dangerous that in December 2005, they evacuated 12 families from their brand-new homes.

Seven years later, the homes still sit empty. “No parking” signs are posted out front. Contractors, military officials and environmental regulators continue to study and discuss the site.

And the dump is still there.

The Manor View dump is not Fort Meade’s only environmental problem. It’s likely not the most serious problem, either.

In fact, the sprawling west county installation has dozens of contaminated sites – the result of troop training activities going back to World War I.

Fort Meade has old landfills, buried grenades and ammunition, and underground oil tanks that leaked.

Firing ranges, motor pools and dry cleaners that no longer exist have left behind chemical legacies.

Dangerous compounds with polysyllabic names have contaminated the soil and the groundwater – to the extent that some residents outside of the post’s gates have been provided drinking water because their wells may be unsafe.

“The bottom line is we need our sites cleaned up,” said Paul Fluck, the civilian in charge of Fort Meade’s restoration program.

But for years, the Army dragged its feet when it came to addressing contamination, environmental officials say.

Only after a federal lawsuit did the Army finally commit last year to cleaning up Fort Meade’s environmental sins once and for all.

Troop training

Fort Meade’s story is not unique among military facilities.

For generations, soldiers didn’t know what damage they were doing to the land and water. While preparing for world wars, this problem wasn’t a high priority.

Fort Meade was founded as Camp Meade on west county farmland in 1917. More than 400,000 men passed through Meade for training on their way to World War I, followed by another 3.5 million soldiers during World War II.

Wartime training included maneuvering tanks and equipment, and firing weapons at shooting ranges and mortar ranges. In many cases, it appears the soldiers left behind debris – spent bullets and unexploded ordnance.

During the wartime booms, buildings shot up around the post to handle the day-to-day necessities of the bustling post: barracks, landfills, dental clinics, motor pools, vehicle repair areas and dry cleaning and laundry facilities. They were all built before modern environmental laws.

“The way we did things in the past is no longer acceptable,” Fluck said.

Fluck compared Fort Meade’s contamination, with the exception of the unexploded ordnance, to that of any other small city. Just like a city, the post has industrial areas, commercial areas, residential areas – each with its own potential for environmental problems.

Industrial activities can involve chemicals being dumped into the soil or groundwater. Tank and vehicle repair shops can spill oil. Underground tanks of heating oil can leak. Landfills didn’t have liners. Ad-hoc dump sites developed in wooded areas.

David Tibbetts, who lives in Odenton and leads a community cleanup committee, said he was struck by the tales of how the contamination was caused.

“I was surprised how much history matters,” he said. “This wasn’t put here out of evil intent. This was people doing things to save our country.”

Bob Morton, an Odenton resident who used to be involved in cleanup oversight, said Meade’s environmental problems, while unintentional, are serious.

“We have to fix it,” he said. “We have truly screwed this area up.”

Health hazards

In some cases, the contamination in the Fort Meade area is dangerous.

In the mid-1990s, the herbicide atrazine turned up in private drinking-water wells in Odenton. Because the site was just east of an old post landfill, the Army was fingered as the possible culprit.

Ultimately, the county government extended public water service to the area, and it later was found the landfill likely wasn’t the source of the contaminants.

More recently, off-post monitoring wells in Odenton showed contamination of carbon tetrachloride and tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, in 2008 and 2009. An investigation is ongoing, and several private wells have been tested during the past few years.

Meanwhile, the families are provided drinking water by the Army – even though the scientific investigation hasn’t indicated whether Fort Meade is the source.

In some cases, the Army mitigates the danger to workers, residents and visitors by simply keeping them away from contaminated areas and making sure the groundwater isn’t tapped as a source of drinking water.

One component of the cleanup efforts involves assessing the human health risk for someone who lives or works directly on a contaminated site. Keeping people out minimizes risk.

In the case of the North Tract of the Patuxent Research Refuge – which includes thousands of acres that were transferred from Fort Meade in the 1990s – signs warn visitors that they might stumble upon grenades or other military munitions. Visitors must sign a paper acknowledging that they understand the risk.

For the most part, though, Fort Meade’s environmental problems remain hidden from public view. The chemicals and contaminants are in the groundwater or deep in the soil. Many of the old buildings have been razed.

In all, the cleanup effort is divided into about three dozen sites, called “operable units” in government lingo. But two of those operable units encompass more than 100 sites where it isn’t known if there is contamination.

The Army is checking every location on post where there’s even a remote possibility of a problem – for example, any spot that ever showed up as a possible dump on old aerial photos or any spot where vehicles were stored or maintained.

Fluck said the effort to seek out contaminated sites is a reflection of the intent of Army officials to be “good stewards.”

Superfund listing

But according to some involved in the Fort Meade cleanup effort, the Army hasn’t always been a good steward.

It has been clear for many decades that Fort Meade has serious environmental problems.

There were attempts at cleaning up some sites over the years, including when Tipton Airport – home of three old landfills – was turned over to the county and thousands of acres of woods were transferred to the Patuxent Research Refuge in the 1990s.

Things didn’t get serious, though, until 1998, when Fort Meade was placed on the Superfund list of the nation’s most polluted sites.

Inclusion on the list – officially called the National Priorities List – gives federal environmental officials more oversight powers. And it makes a site eligible for certain federal cleanup funds.

At the time of the Superfund listing, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said the Army wasn’t organized and disagreed with pollution standards. The Army lacked a plan and a timetable for assessing and cleaning up polluted areas, according to reports in The Capital.

But even following the Superfund designation, cleanup progress didn’t improve enough to meet the EPA’s expectations. The Army refused to sign a document called a Federal Facility Agreement, which spells out the military’s obligations.

James Daniel, who oversees cleanup projects for the U.S. Army Environmental Command, said the sticking point with Fort Meade was whether the agreement should cover lands that had been transferred out of Army hands – such as the wildlife refuge and another parcel now owned by the U.S. Architect of the Capitol that’s used for storing federal records.

The Army contended that those sites were removed from the Army’s control before Fort Meade landed on the Superfund list, and therefore shouldn’t be included.

“That was the initial disagreement,” Daniel said.

Similar disagreements were playing out at military installations around the country, Daniel said. But he emphasized that even with the disagreements, testing and monitoring and cleanup activities at Meade and elsewhere continued.

U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., who had represented the area as a congressman for two decades, said the Army was not focused on cleanup efforts at all.

“There was a lot of bureaucratic problems coming out of the Pentagon on cleanup sites, not just Fort Meade,” he said.

‘Dragging their feet’

By 2007, the EPA had enough with the Army’s delays on Fort Meade.

The EPA used a federal law called the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to issue an administrative order requiring the cleanup.

The order was issued after the EPA decided there was an “immediate and substantial endangerment” to people on- and off-post, said Ben Mykijewycz, who oversees Superfund sites in the Mid-Atlantic region for the EPA.

“Up until that time, the Army was kind of dragging their feet,” Mykijewycz said.

With the order, he said, Meade’s problems have “been raised to their highest levels. They finally realized how serious some of these issues are.”

Even so, the Army did not follow the terms of the order, blowing several deadlines for filing reports and plans.

In 2008, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the citizens of Maryland to compel the Army to follow the cleanup order.

“We didn’t sue the Army lightly,” explained Steve Johnson, a top environmental lawyer in Gansler’s office. “For some reason, there was a reluctance, an unwillingness from Fort Meade.”

Johnson said it didn’t seem as though the Army would ever sign onto a Federal Facility Agreement. The lawsuit was necessary to force action, he said.

“We expected that the lawsuit would end up pushing the Army to enter the FFA in relatively short order,” Johnson said.

And it worked.

After months and months of negotiation, the Army signed a Federal Facility Agreement in 2009. The agreement included the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Architect of the Capitol as co-signers, in order to cover the contaminated properties they had received from the Army.

The lawsuit and the previous EPA cleanup order were withdrawn.

‘Back to business’

Since 2009, there has been a renewed enthusiasm for improving the environmental situation at Fort Meade, according to involved parties.

Instead of fighting over details, the agencies are working hand-in-hand to accelerate the cleanup.

“Things are going a lot better,” said John Burchette, an EPA official who works on the Fort Meade cleanup.

“We now have enforceable timelines. That helps a lot. EPA and the Army have been meeting quite frequently to discuss how we are going to clean up these sites. It’s progressing a little bit faster.”

Added Mykijewycz, the other EPA official: “We’re more in line with the same dance now, where we might have been out of step.”

From the Army’s perspective, the EPA is moving faster, too, offering comments and feedback on Army plans at a quicker pace, said the Army’s Daniel.

“The impacts of the order and this whole disagreement – it was more of a distraction than anything else,” he said. “Once that was all over, we got back to business.”

But all is not perfect.

Earlier this year, auditors with the Government Accountability Office scolded the Department of Defense for tracking cleanup efforts with different lingo and numbering systems than the ones the EPA uses. The DOD also has different ways to classify how far along a cleanup process is at each site.

“EPA and DOD report dissimilar pictures of cleanup progress because each agency reports cleanup progress in a different way,” the auditors wrote.

The report also criticized the delays in getting the Federal Facility Agreements signed at military installations, including Fort Meade.

Slow pace

Although the cleanup is moving forward, it can be a slow process.

The Fort Meade Superfund cleanup is conducted under a federal law called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act – better known by its acronym, CERCLA.

The process laid out in CERCLA is detailed and deliberative. For those not familiar with government and military work, the process can seem agonizingly slow.

It can take years from the time contamination is discovered until a final fix is decided on – say, digging out a landfill or pumping and treating contaminated groundwater.

Just 10 days ago, during a public meeting, Army contractors described how they were close to recommending that a groundwater plume of PCE that stretches from the southern end of the post onto the wildlife refuge should be left alone and monitored.

But the EPA sent the contractors back to do more testing before coming up with a solution. The EPA must sign off on all final cleanup strategies.

‘Close to the end’

The EPA officials expect that, at best, Fort Meade could hit the “construction complete” milestone in the CERCLA process by 2020. That means that environmental remedies are in place and working on all of the contaminated sites.

Daniel, the top Army cleanup official, said the military is aiming to get remedies even quicker than that, in 2013.

“We’re pretty close to the end at Meade,” he said.

Copyright © Capital Gazette Communications, Inc., 2010.

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