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March 7, 2012

Stonewalling or Shoddy Science

Norman M. Covert

Who is at fault in the on-going public relations disaster regarding Fort Detrick’s Area B ground water contamination and migration? Is it lackadaisical scientific investigation, a sensationalist media selling newspapers, or an intractable U. S. Army?


That question arises as news reports tell us the National Research Council (NRC) doubts the conclusion of a 2009 environmental study of the Area B investigation by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services' Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The Army funded all the reviews.


The research council said there was insufficient empirical data, none earlier than 1991, to make the conclusion that groundwater contamination at Area B was unlikely to cause health problems, indeed a “cancer cluster,” in the surrounding area.


It did not question the conclusions of the joint analysis by the Frederick County Department of Health and Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) that no such “cluster” is statistically supportable.


Is someone hiding the information which existed in the office of the U. S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command historian’s office in May 1999? Were these records lost, destroyed or have they just been ignored? What a conundrum for city residents, who were shown credible evidence of their safety for many years.


What happened to the extensive data that existed in the National Archives’ Suitland and College Park repositories; the indexed reports in the Maryland Room of the C. Burr Artz Library, Frederick; or the mountain of information that was last seen piled in the one-man Fort Detrick environmental office?


A detailed account of all records in the Maryland Room shows those meticulously prepared records to be extant, including information beyond the 1991 claim of NRC and HHS. It is reasonable to assume that someone overlooked this repository in supplying those conducting the studies.


The U. S. Army Environmental Hygiene Agency (AEHA) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD, has information its’ teams gathered while heading up the Area B study from 1991, including information from previous investigations used to track and provide a time line.


When Fort Detrick transitioned from the former offensive biological warfare program (1969-1972), a detailed record of every step in the process was compiled. Written documents were backed up by visual records on 16mm film and still photographs, and eye-witness statements from state, local and federal officials. A thorough review of Area B and any groundwater threats was undertaken by a distinguished panel of environmental experts.


What happened to the detailed reports compiled in the 1980s after Post Commander, the late Col. Robert M. Shaw, ordered a review of groundwater at Area B with data from 28 test wells?


Comprehensive ground water investigations ensued with environmental contractors conducting “Priority Pollutant Scans” seeking evidence in 32 test wells of 144 chemical substances (including herbicides) above the drinking water maximum contamination level (MCL). None was found.


Empirical data indicating clean ground water at Area B prompted Col. Mark L. Hoke, then commander, to hold a press conference in 1984 to announce the results.


“We can take the Ghost of Area B,” he said with the data distributed to the gathered media, “lock him in the closet and throw away the key.”


What a surprise some six years later when those test wells began to show increasing numbers of dry cleaning solvents trichloroethane (TCE) and perchloroethane (PCE). In addition to moving quickly to protect neighbors from possible contamination, the Army provided bottled drinking water and ultimately taps into the city water lines at the intersection of Montevue Lane and Shookstown Road.


No source has been identified for TCE or PCE, only suspicion in the media that the Army must be the culprit. Interestingly Fort Detrick activities during the decade 1982-92 do not indicate unusual use of the chemical agents, nor dumping in Area B.


We asked if an off-post source could be identified. A local resident indicated in 1992 he knew an area dry cleaning establishment had dumped TCE/PCE in the former quarry off Shookstown Road. Investigation showed only organic material in the pit. Other possible sources were ignored by state environmentalists.


It is unlikely, but not impossible, that the massive Buckeystown TCE contamination in 1980 could possibly have moved through the Frederick Aquifer, a huge underground limestone reservoir. The notion caused state officials to furrow their brow in disbelief.


A nearly 90-minute videotape records the ground water data and remediation plan presented at a public meeting in then-Mayor Paul Gordon’s meeting room. It was emceed by the late Frederick Chamber of Commerce executive Katherine (Kitty) Reed. The AEHA presented both old and new documents in its audio-visual presentation.


When the Army began its search and found the Area B disposal pit Trench 11, the resultant $40-plus-million investigation took on the trappings of an environmental witch hunt, in which there will be no conclusions, only an endless round of accusations of malfeasance by the Army.


As a neighbor of Fort Detrick, it behooves me to find out if my family is endangered. Nothing I have read from the never-ending Area B discourse tells me to pack up and move.


Information still indicates no TCE/PCE has crossed Montevue Lane from Robinson Pond, where both are being naturally remediated into the air before reaching Carroll Creek. None has been detected where the creek meanders to East Patrick Street, nor has it crossed Shookstown Road where all residents are on city water.


The NRC’s claims of insufficient evidence may be its way of excusing the HHS and its apparently shoddy scientific practices.


The Army has been accused of withholding information from Randy White of the Kristen Renee Foundation, which seeks to prove existence of a cancer cluster. Anyone may have access to unclassified records in the National Archives and assuredly at Frederick’s Maryland Room.


Mr. White may not prove his allegation that the U. S. Army is criminally liable in his daughter Kristen Renee’s death. I don’t doubt his tenacity, plus he has media support and the availability of records that the HHS and NRC couldn’t find.


The Army has a responsibility to see that all the information is made available and to assist whenever possible.


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