ANNAPOLIS – Owen P. Brown says he just did what he was told.
Stationed during the early 1950s at what then was called the Dahlgren Naval Proving Ground, Brown says he got an order:
Get a crew of men together and have them dump a stack of nearly 50 metal boxes loaded with mercury switches into the nearby Potomac River south of the U.S. Route 301 bridge.
But over 40 years later, the boxes’ contents troubled the Eastport, Md.-born Brown, now 77. Saying, “I just couldn’t let it lay,” Brown told the Maryland Department of Resources about the dumping in a 1994 letter.
“I have put this out of my mind and forgotten about it for many years now,” he wrote. But the cases “are probably rusted out … and may be releasing mercury into the Potomac River.”
In response, the DNR and the Maryland Department of the Environment, which share responsibility for the health of the Potomac, reviewed routinely collected testing data for signs of mercury, said DNR spokesman Richard McIntire.
After finding nothing unusual, then-DNR Secretary Torrey C. Brown promised Owen Brown in a 1994 letter that “we will … do a full assessment of the hazard and take the appropriate action.”
But further action apparently never came.
“We’ve gone through the files” and found nothing indicating the promised inquiry ever took place, said Quentin Banks, spokesman for the environment department. McIntire said DNR records showed the same situation.
Nor has the Navy found any evidence bolstering Owen Brown’s claim.
In a 1995 memo, Capt. J.B. Wilkinson told the DNR that after a records search and interviews with former Dahlgren employees, he found nothing regarding either the purchase or disposal of mercury switches.
And without that corroborative evidence, Banks said Owen Brown’s letter doesn’t cross the threshold for a more intensive search — one that could be very expensive.
“If you’re thinking that the state is going to pull up in some boat and get in scuba gear,” that isn’t going to happen, Banks said.
Said Torrey Brown, “I can’t imagine anybody looking for what he said was dumped.”
Sometimes years-old actions like those Owen Brown described turn out to be tricks of memory or are based on participants’ misunderstanding of events, Torrey Brown said. Nevertheless, Torrey Brown expressed disappointment that no additional study was made.
Even if the cases of mercury switches were to be found, removal could be difficult and dangerous, officials said.
The cases could be buried deep in the river mud, rendering them harmless, or they could be so deteriorated that removal could break them open and release the mercury, said Bob Lunsford, a DNR fisheries expert. If they were dumped as Owen Brown claims, they might best be left where they are, Lunsford said.
Explosives could also complicate things. A nearly 20-mile stretch of the Potomac near Dahlgren has for decades been an artillery testing range, said Bruce Beach, a project manager with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The river bottom is lined with rounds, some of which may be live, Beach said.
State environmental officials also say the type of mercury commonly found in the switches is not harmful to living organisms. A DNR memo cites a ship that sank off Maine with a cargo of over 1,600 pounds of elemental mercury. Shellfish growing in the vessel’s hold showed no elevated levels of mercury in their tissue, the memo says.
But to Kim Coble, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, “the question is more complex.” She said there’s very little known about the effects of this form of mercury on an ecosystem.
And although the EPA’s Beach said he thinks the mercury in the switches isn’t that toxic, he added, “I wouldn’t want to breathe it and touch it.”
Beach said the EPA may perform a magnetic sweep of the area to find the ammunition cases.
Now called the Dahlgren Surface Warfare Center, Owen Brown’s former installation shares with other military bases a troubled environmental past.
The Navy, under EPA supervision, is cleaning up several landfills, wells and areas where depleted uranium ammunition had been fired into mounds of dirt, Beach said. But lest those living near Dahlgren become overly concerned, he said, the base “is less dirty” than many.
Owen Brown’s naval career spanned most of his working life. He said he signed up as an 18-year-old and became an ordnance specialist. He survived the 1943 sinking of the U.S.S. Yorktown at Midway in World War II. Leaving active duty in 1958, Brown continued with the Navy as a civilian, finally retiring 11 years ago.
Although he now lives in California, Brown remembers the Chesapeake’s many important fisheries and says he was concerned about mercury’s potential effects. Brown stands by his claims. “Something,” he says, “should be done to clean this up.” -30-