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EPA to Propose Fort Detrick as Superfund Cleanup Site

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will propose Frederick's Fort Detrick as a possible Superfund site, a move that would give that agency oversight of the U.S. Army's cleanup of chemical-laced groundwater, officials said.

That announcement last week marks the latest turn in an environmental saga at the base, which began in the early 1990s when tests found two toxins in water wells. They aren't chemical weapons, which were tested at Fort Detrick during the Cold War, but both chemicals have been shown to cause health problems.

The Army has spent millions to clean up the site, but Maryland regulators have complained that they are moving too slowly.

Maryland pressed the EPA to put the base on its Superfund list, saying this move could set a schedule for the cleanup and also provide answers to remaining questions about how far the contamination has spread.

Last week, the EPA agreed to propose the site.

"We don't believe there's an imminent threat to the citizens" from pollution at the site, said Horacio Tablada of the Maryland Department of the Environment. "However, by law you have to clean up the contamination."

The Superfund program was created in 1980 to guide the cleanups of disused hazardous-waste sites. It provides money for the EPA to clean up these sites, and legal authority for the agency to make others clean up their own pollution.

There are 1,255 sites on the Superfund's National Priorities List. Several of them are in the Washington area, such as the Washington Navy Yard in the District and Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Prince George's County.

The EPA's proposal could make Fort Detrick the next. Officials said they planned to formally propose the base as a Superfund site in September. After that, they said, there will be a public comment period, so a decision will probably not come for months.

A Department of Defense official said Friday that the Army disagrees with the EPA's decision. Tad Davis said that a Superfund listing would send a signal that there is a threat to human health from groundwater at the base, when he said none has been shown to exist.

"We see ourselves being, you know, at the tail end of this cleanup," said Davis, a deputy assistant secretary of the Army. "So there's no utility in now going forward with this [Superfund] listing."

The problems with groundwater were just one aspect of a widespread environmental problem at Fort Detrick, where the Army built and tested biological and chemical weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. After the Army began digging up sites in 2001, it unexpectedly found hazardous materials, everything from rats in formaldehyde to tiny vials of live bacteria.

In total, Davis said, the Army has spent $43 million and cleaned up 35 of 42 sites where potentially hazardous materials were found. Six more of the sites will soon be completed, he said.

But that last site is the most problematic. Called "Area B," it is a 400-acre tract that was once used for dumping waste. In the early 1990s, monitoring wells there turned up traces of trichloroethylene, a metal-cleaning solvent, and tetrachloroethylene, a degreasing compound.

These chemicals have now been found in a mile-long "plume" underground, which in a few places extends outside the fort's boundaries to private property. Army officials say they do not think the contaminants have made it into the drinking water supply, either through home wells or aquifers tapped by public water supplies.

But EPA and Maryland officials say that more research is needed. One benefit of the Superfund designation, they said, would be that the Fort Detrick area would be thoroughly tested to determine how far the plume had spread.

"The key thing is, what [pollutants] are in the groundwater, and how far have they moved?" said John Reeder, an EPA official.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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