Army denies sitting on Ft. Jackson pollution data

11/15/2013 5:37 PM

11/15/2013 10:23 PM

The U.S. Army denied Friday that it tried to hide the results of a pollution investigation at Fort Jackson, saying South Carolina regulators were mistaken when they alleged the fort kept the data secret for more than a year.

Fort Jackson officials didn’t get test results of groundwater contamination until June 2013 — not July 2012 as the Department of Health and Environmental Control said in a recent letter chastising the base for failing to tell state officials, said the fort’s commander, Brig. Gen. Bradley Becker.

“Really, that was a miscommunication,’’ Becker said of DHEC director Catherine Templeton’s Oct. 25 letter.

The fort notified DHEC of contamination at the military installation this October after reviewing an exhaustive draft study that identified traces of RDX, a caustic compound used in hand grenades that also can cause seizures in people who drink water with high amounts.

Fort Jackson began sending out notices Friday to 24 residents near the base about the contamination and asking to test their wells for contamination. A public meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Nov. 21 at the Weston Lake community center, near where the pollution was discovered on the base’s southern border with Leesburg Road.

Fort officials defended their actions during a media briefing Friday, saying groundwater pollution found on the base remains at levels that are not high enough to jeopardize public health.

While the amount of RDX is enough to warrant further investigation to see if it has moved off the fort, the level does not exceed a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health advisory level of 2 parts per billion, according to Fort Jackson. The highest amount found on the base was under 1 part per billion. The fort does not expect tests of private wells to show evidence of elevated RDX levels in drinking water.

“I would drink it,’ said Barbara Williams, Fort Jackson’s environmental management branch chief.

DHEC officials said they also think the test results will not show elevated levels of RDX in private wells, but agency officials continued Friday to challenge the base’s actions.

The first laboratory tests that detected pollution came back in the summer of 2012 – as Templeton asserted in her Oct. 25 letter, agency spokesman Mark Plowden said in an email Friday night.

Templeton’s letter said “It is our belief that you have known about this exceedance since July 2012 and failed to notify the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control .... of the potential area of concern within 15 days required by your (hazardous materials) permit.’’

Base officials said federal law did not require them to notify DHEC, but they still scrambled to let the agency know as soon as possible. Williams said the base would have had a difficult time notifying DHEC sooner than October because the pollution results were contained in a 4,000-page draft report that needed careful scrutiny.

“I personally reviewed every page and it took me a very long time to do so,’’ Williams said, noting that fort officials were also trying to determine how to proceed “without alarming people.’’

Williams said as she and others worked on the study, Fort Jackson environmental officials also were caught in the federal government shutdown this fall. That left most federal employees out of work for several weeks.

RDX, short for Royal Demolition Explosive, is a man-made compound that can cause seizures in people who swallow substantial quantities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is considered a possible human carcinogen.

RDX may have been used since the 1940s in hand grenades at Fort Jackson, officials said. It still is used in the estimated 100,000 live grenades troops throw each year as part of their training, Becker said. Because grenades that contain RDX remain an important part of training, the military is monitoring that as part of a major assessment of possible contamination on the training base.

Fort Jackson is among military bases across the country participating in a program to actively look for such pollution and head off contamination before it gets worse, officials said.

The military’s review at one point found 99 ranges at the fort and the National Guard’s McCrady Training center that warranted further investigation. But officials said most of the hand grenades used at Fort Jackson are thrown on one range.

The pollution found in groundwater along the southern edge of Fort Jackson had some nearby residents wanting to know more about any potential hazards.

“We have a newborn baby, so we can’t have contaminated water,’’ said 31-year-old Davis Road resident Brian Harvey. “She’s just a few weeks old. It makes you think about using bottled water.’’

Leesburg Road resident Nathaniel Ray, 59, said he’ll move if his well is found to have contamination from the base.

“If it’s polluted, I’ll sell my house,’’ Ray said. “I’d like to know more. I don’t want to be drinking something that ain’t safe.’’

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