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Fort Detrick caps toxic waste

July 7, 2009  
Ft. Detrick, July 6, 2009

By Max Cacas

(Frederick, Md.) - Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency put the site of major toxic waste contamination at Fort Detrick in Frederick on its Superfund National Priorities list. Now, one of Maryland's U.S. Senators gets a first hand update on the effort to safeguard the drinking water supply near the Central Maryland Army facility.

Environmental clean-up specialists are in the middle-phases of a program to create a landfill "cap" on an area known as "Area B" in a remote northwest corner of the Fort Detrick installation. The reason is simple, says Joe Gortva, the restoration manager heading up what is called the 17 year "remediation" effort at Detrick.

"In 1992, off-post contamination from Area B was first detected in residential wells," he told a briefing for Senator Ben Cardin (D.-Md.) held in a field not far from where a backhoe and two bulldozers pushed and molded tons of freshly-trucked-in fill dirt and gravel into the cap designed to deter the spread of chemicals from decades of biological weapons research.

Immediately after discovering the contamination, Gortva said, the Army delivered bottled water to the affected residences, or arranged to have municipal water supplies hooked up to the homes.

Gortva explained that eventually the fill material will create a mound with a 4 percent slope around the edges. "Why do we need that slope? One of the things we're going to have to do is put an impermeable layer across this surface. We want to be sure that rain water that falls will be shed off" of the cap.

Gortva went on to say that the cap is designed to keep rainwater from penetrating into the contaminated soil, and pushing the biological wastes and chemicals further into the groundwater, which can be as much as 400 feet below the surface.

Scientists have learned that it is just as effective to cap the contaminated soil, and keep rainwater from spreading the chemicals further, rather than excavating the soil and contaminants and dumping it somewhere else.

"How effective is this process?" asked Cardin, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "It's the gold standard for landfills," replied Gortva.

Both Cardin, and Army Col. Judith Robinson, Fort Detrick's garrison commander, are confident that with the help of the Maryland Department of the Environment, the listing on the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund National Priorities list, and six million dollars allocated to the U.S. Army for the remediation project at the installation should be completed by 2013. Cardin also credits local residents and Frederick city officials with working closely with base commanders to press for the cleanup program.

The Fort Detrick Area B ground water program is considered a model for how federal, state, and military officials are working to remediate scores of toxic waste dump sites located at military bases nationwide. Many of those projects are also on the Superfund National Priorities list.

As for Area B, Col. Robinson says a number of possible uses are being considered for the site. She says that they could use the area of the landfill cap as a parking lot for the cars of base personnel or for the location of a future solar energy farm.


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