Pentagon blasted for cleanup pace
Auditors see `misleading picture' by Army engineers
by Miguel Llanos and The Associated Press, MSNBC, 5 Sep 2001
Sept. 5 -- Thousands of former military sites contaminated by hazardous waste are being cleaned up much more slowly than the Pentagon is claiming, congressional auditors said in a report released Wednesday. House Democrats who requested the report harshly criticized the military's stewardship of the program.
"THESE SERIOUSLY contaminated sites must be addressed in a timely manner before this dangerous brew threatens public health and safety," warned Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, reported that a Pentagon review on the $200 million-a-year program provided "a misleading picture" by claiming that more than half of the cleanup work had been done when only about a third had been completed.
"As a result, it appears that after 15 years and expenditures of $2.6 billion, over 50 percent of the ... projects have been completed," the GAO said. "In reality, only about 32 percent of those projects that required actual cleanup actions have been completed, and those are the cheapest and least technologically challenging."
In a statement issued with the report, Dingell noted that only 16 percent of the cleanups deemed "high risk" nationwide have been funded.
ARMY CORPS IN CHARGE
The Army Corps of Engineers manages the program, aimed at cleaning up sites thought to contain hazardous, toxic and radioactive waste in soil and water, or in containers such as underground storage tanks. The program also removes unexploded ordnance found at sites.
Dingell criticized the Corps for "tearing down buildings and pulling tanks while many high- and medium-risk properties with toxic groundwater contamination or unexploded ordinance have been left to percolate" in the soil.
About one-quarter of the more than 9,000 potential cleanup sites across the country as of Oct. 1, 2000, had cleanup projects, the GAO report found, while most of the remainder did not require or were ineligible for cleanup, based on a lack of records.
However, the Corps reported many of those projects as having been completed, the GAO found, even though they were closed as the result of administrative action rather than an actual cleanup.
PENTAGON TO CLARIFY METHOD
Those administrative closures was a point of concern for Dingell, who singled out the Spring Valley site in Washington, D.C., as an example of where the Corps at first refused to recognize a cleanup need.
That site, a neighborhood that sits on a World War I munitions complex, is now being excavated and hazardous material removed. Some 660 homes have already been sampled and 600 more have yet to be tested. So far, Army Corps crews have found arsenic, an agent for mustard gas and mercury.
"As evidenced by the notorious Spring Valley site," Dingell stated, "the Corps' determination can be very wrong. I hope a similar mistake is not played out on a national scale."
Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Eugene Pawlik said the Corps probably would have more to say on the report soon. "We've got to read the report and review the contents," he said Tuesday. "We know it's a big program, and it seems to get bigger all the time."
The GAO noted that Pentagon officials provided oral comments agreeing that they need to clarify their method of accounting for the cleanup efforts in future annual reports to Congress.
The Corps estimates the remaining projects will cost more than $13 billion and take at least a half-century more to complete, the GAO said. But those estimates do not account for removing unexploded ordinance -- at an additional cost of $5 billion.
The report and a statement by the House Democrats who ordered it are online at www.house.gov/commerce_democrats/.
MSNBC.com's Miguel Llanos as well as The Associated Press contributed to this report.
© 2001 MSNBC
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