May 18th, 2000
5.Negative Legacy

Eighty Years of Serious Contamination
No health survey

About 60 kilometers (38 miles) northeast of the nation's capital, Washington, DC, on a corner of an old street in Baltimore, the largest city in Maryland, stands the office of a citizens group of which Richard Ochs (61), a printer, serves as president.

Growing anxiety among the residents

"The name of the group? It's long so you'll never remember it," Ochs leads with a laugh. "We're called the Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition." His lean body stretches to pull some material down from a high shelf. "Look. This vast area is the base we're worried about."

The Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) is an army base located 30 kilometers northeast of Baltimore. It is roughly rectangular, about 40 kilometers (24 miles) long and 8 kilometers (5 miles) wide, fronting Chesapeake Bay. It opened in 1917 during the First World War and is one of the oldest proving grounds in the US.

"This place is involved with most of the weapons the army develops. There's an army research laboratory, too, so they've got research, testing, training, and storage. It's always been a central, vital base for the army. In fact, they've been testing depleted uranium (DU) shells here since the mid-1950s."

However, Ochs first learned about APG testing of DU weapons in 1994. The Citizens Coalition founded in 1992 originally focused on contamination from heavy metals and other chemical substances.

"In the 25 years prior to 1979, they were firing at metals used for tanks and armored vehicles. They did this outdoors, with nothing to keep the radioactivie dust from blowing toward homes."

The more Ochs and his group learned about the nature of DU penetrators and the health problems of Gulf War veterans, the more their anxiety grew.

Military discloses nothing

How much DU has disbursed in the air? The army has refused to answer this question posed by the Citizens Coalition. However, based on army reports and other data, the Coalition estimates that, until 1979, approximately 11,600 microcuries per month (about 30 kilograms or 66 pounds) of DU was being discharged into the atmosphere. This is about 77 times the state standard of 150 microcuries (387 grams or 0.85 pounds) a month.

"After 1979, hard target tests using metal plates were taken indoors. However, soft target testing into sand is still conducted outdoors," Ochs explains. He claims that more than 70 tons of DU have accumulated at the soft target firing range.

About two million people live near the APG, including the entire population of Baltimore. The state of Maryland ranks in the top three to five states in cancer incidence every year. Harford County, adjacent to the base, has the highest rates in the state. Furthermore, the cancer rate in Delaware, the state just to the east and downwind from the base, is the highest in the US.

Fears of compensation

"Even though we have all these risk factors at work here, the military and the state government have never done any sort of health or environmental survey in the vicinity of the base." Ochs struggles to hide his anger. "They're terrified they'll have to compensate the residents if the truth comes to light."

The contamination of all types at the base is such that the national Environmental Protection Agency has designated it a Super Fund site, thus placing it among the most contaminated sites in the US. It is a massive dump of radium gauges and other radioactive substances, abandoned chemical and biological weapons manufactured during World Wars I and II, five million unexploded bombs of various sorts, and more.

"Here is where we bury all the negative assets we've accumulated during eighty years of military activities." As he speaks, Ochs points to a contamination map of the base produced by the Citizens Coalition. "How many taxpayer dollars will it take to remove this contamination? And yet, they keep firing DU munitions, just adding to the contamination and threatening the lives of the residents. What they are doing is criminal."
Ochs has also been involved in peace activities for forty years. "Environmental protection is an important element of peace activities." His task won't end any time soon.

"I'm also worried about the contamination of fish and shellfish around here." Richard Ochs displays a contamination map of the base. (Baltimore, Maryland)

next | back | DU index