September 22, 2008

Meade Cleanup Called Too Slow


WASHINGTON, D.C. - Democratic senators chastised a Department of Defense official this week, saying the agency is breaking the law, abusing power and dragging its feet on cleaning up environmental hazards at Fort George G. Meade and other posts.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Baltimore, asked Wayne Arny, a Pentagon official responsible for the military's environmental cleanups, point blank what was holding up the cleanup.

"Why have you not complied with the law when it comes to Fort Meade?" said Mr. Cardin.

He and other members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee convened with defense officials, environmental experts and state regulators to discuss why it has taken decades, in some cases, for the military to remove hazardous waste from facilities across the country, potentially putting members of the military and people who live nearby at risk.

"Several of my colleagues requested this hearing because unfortunately this administration has allowed federal facilities to resist following cleanup orders" from the Environmental Protection Agency, said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California.

In Anne Arundel, that includes a 15-year effort to remove unexploded rockets, solvents, cleaning materials and other hazards from Fort Meade.

In 1998, after six years of wrestling with the EPA, parts of the west county Army post were added to the national Superfund cleanup list, making it a priority for environmental restorations.

At the time, Army officials expected that it would take an additional six years to make progress there. However, the EPA and DOD are in a log jam, a delay fort officials blame on fighting between the two organizations' lawyers.

As things stand, the military has not agreed to sign a Federal Facility Agreement, a document that would set a timeline and guide for cleanups at Fort Meade.

In August 2007, the EPA completed its most recent formal action regarding Fort Meade, issuing the Army an unilateral order to clean 14 additional sites there.

"When you wait nine years to enter into a facility agreement, and you start picking and choosing what you are going to do, it doesn't give me confidence that the men and women who are serving in our military in uniform and the surrounding communities are safe," Mr. Cardin said.

In all, 172 federal sites are on or have been on the Superfund list. Of those, 81 percent were affiliated with the military. And by law, the EPA has final say on cleanups on those properties, not the DoD, said Susan Bodine, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

The military countered that it is effectively addressing environmental issues on installations.

"Be assured the safety and health of our uniformed men and women, their families and surrounding communities is of the utmost importance to DoD," Mr. Arny said.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, said the military is appropriately cleaning environmental hazards and delay is caused because politicians and federal department heads tangled in the bureaucratic process. By his analysis, the military has been around 90 percent effective in addressing the problems.

"The DOD is proceeding at a good pace," he said.

And Fort Meade officials say they are doing all that they can. Col. Daniel Thomas, installation commander, told reporters last month that he doesn't believe there is a looming threat to the health of soldiers or civilians at the post and beyond its walls. If he did, he would quickly "attack it like an enemy," he said.

And Shari T. Wilson, secretary of the environment for the state, said the problems at Fort Meade are not an immediate health risk, but they could become one in the future.

Some contaminants haven't been cleaned as quickly as others because the military makes sites that are the most threatening to public health their first priority. If a site is contaminated but the actual hazards aren't spreading or making people ill, the DoD focuses on other problems first, Mr. Arny said.

"We characterize sites as what's most critical. What's moving, what's not moving. Just because something doesn't have a remedy in place doesn't mean we haven't looked at it, and the DoD's plan changes as the hazard changes," he said.

But others were critical and accused the DoD of arrogantly denying responsibility for the pollutants, putting neighborhoods at risk and, in some cases, threatening state governments into backing away from their own campaigns to coerce the military to fix environmental problems.

"You make broad statements about the safety of the community," Mr. Cardin told Mr. Arny, nearly yelling. "In Maryland we have a community known as Odenton. They are very concerned because results show that pollutants from Fort Meade are coming down there. It's not only affecting the health of people at Fort Meade, the military, but the surrounding the communities."

The county has intermittently tested groundwater in a part of the town near the post for contaminants.

As the EPA and DOD sit at a standstill, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler has threatened to sue the military on behalf of citizens, an effort to reach a binding agreement for a cleanup, Ms. Wilson said.

The military has yet to respond to the lawsuit threat, which is the first of its type in Maryland history. {Corrections:} {Status:}


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