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Fort Detrick Neighbors Say Area’s Contaminated

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FREDERICK (WJZ) — Neighbors of Fort Detrick in Frederick are demanding action.  They claim research on biological weapons contaminated the water they drank, the soil they farmed and the air they breathed.  Vic Carter investigates whether it was a tragic coincidence or something more.

Hundreds of people in the community surrounding Fort Detrick either have cancer or have already died of it.

“I feel like I have this enemy across from me,” said Dottie Blank.

Seventy-seven-year-old Dottie Blank worked at Fort Detrick.  She says more than two dozen of her neighbors have died of cancer and she has two forms of cancer herself.  She says she blames Fort Detrick for some of her health issues.

“I start thinking, `How long with what I have?  Is it because of Detrick?’” she says.

Dottie and her daughter, Debbie, remember that during the Cold War, Fort Detrick led the country’s research into biological warfare, even experimenting with Agent Orange, which the Army now admits spraying in the area over a 25-year period.

“We’d go over there and see them bury the drums and the bottles to the landfill and the trenches,” Debbie Blank said.

For decades, the military dumped its toxic leftover directly into the ground.  Neighbors insist the high cancer rates surrounding the base are not just a tragic coincidence.  In fact, the National Cancer Institute shows Frederick County has the highest cancer rate in the state.

“Of my 17 cousins that lived in the neighborhood here, nine developed cancer and six would die and four died in the ’40s,” said Gerald Koehl.

Sixty-four-year-old Gerald Koehl and his cousins often played along the fence between Fort Detrick and their family harm.

“We would see the helicopters fly over,” Koehl said.  “They would start dropping things, then the wind would catch it and it would come over into the field where we were at.”

WJZ obtained documents from the Maryland Department of the Environment and the EPA, which confirm during the Cold War, hazardous chemicals were dumped within hundreds of feet of homes.  Much of it remains buried there today.

The documents say “biological waste, animal carcasses, chemicals and sludge from decontamination systems…were disposed of in unlined trenches.” 

Ongoing EPA groundwater sampling indicates the cancer-causing chemicals TCE and PCE above the Safe Drinking Water Act maximum contaminant levels.

“We’ve been drinking it since ’59 and that’s when all that was over there,” Debbie Blank said.

A local advocacy group blames Fort Detrick for the nearly 600 cancer cases it’s discovered, dating back decades.

“The clock is moving a little bit too slow.  These are precious people and they don’t have time.  They don’t have time to wait another two years,” said Susie Funk.

Maryland Senator Ben Cardin is outraged and says the federal government should begin its cleanup immediately.

“The first thing to do is make sure it’s safe.  We don’t want anyone living or working where it’s not safe,” Cardin said.  “The federal government has to take responsibility.”

Despite all this, Fort Detrick denied our request for an interview and sent a statement saying, “There is no public health risk.”

“I want them to take some responsibility and admit it and fix it, once and for all,” Dottie Blank said.  “That’s my prayer.”

The Frederick County and State Health Departments have been meeting with the community for months investigating whether the numbers meet the levels for a cancer cluster.

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