While a generation of new laws and a growing environmental consciousness are slowly causing private industry to become concerned about the environment, we are discovering that the U.S. Department of Defense is America’s most pervasive and protected polluter.
As stringent military budgets and the sudden costs of the mideast intrusion buffet the military planners, the United States must now confront an exceptionally expensive post cold-war toxic cleanup.
The military’s 871 domestic installations, strung across 25 million acres of land, produce more tons of hazardous waste each year than the top five U.S. chemical companies combined. Nowhere in this country is the Pentagon’s environmental nightmare more vivid than at the Army’s Jefferson Proving Ground in southern Indiana. Since 1941, workers have test-fired 23 million artillery, mortar, and tank rounds across 90 square miles of forests and meadows. An estimated 1.4 million of those test rounds have not exploded – yet. The result is a 90-squaremile wasteland armored with deadly debris. Jefferson is on the Pentagon’s closure list, and while shutting down the range will save the pentagon $7 million a year, the cleanup costs will run into the billions.
A curious double standard has permitted the Pentagon to ignore the environmental regulations that are beginning to solve problems in private industry. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot file civil suits against other federal departments to enforce its regulations. The Justice Department, which would bring any action on EPA’s behalf, says the Constitution precludes such suits. It insists that the EPA rely on voluntary agreements with other federal agencies. With the Pentagon already besieged with financial problems, asking it to voluntarily negotiate toxic cleanup could take years.
The result is that cities and states, which must comply with federal standards at their own sewage and waste sites, have limited recourse when Uncle Sam pollutes. The tug of war between environmental and economic concerns will grow more tense. Further, the term cleanup itself is a misnomer. While the worst military toxic sites might eventually be suitable for limited surface uses, they will never be completely safe. And with the Justice Department and the EPA not helping out, the Pentagon can take as long as they want.
The military toxic waste issue has been nominated before and although this nomination appeared in a national newsweekly, it is felt that the continuing enormity of the problem, coupled with its limited coverage elsewhere, still qualifies it as an undercovered story.
SSU CENSORED RESEARCHER: FELICIDAD THORPE-DOE
SOURCE: NEWSWEEK, 444 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022, DATE: 8/6/90
TITLE: “The Military’s Toxic Legacy”
AUTHORS: BILL TURQUE and JOHN McCORMICK
COMMENTS: The military’s toxic waste issue has been nominated several times in the past and in 1986 the story focused on Tinker Air Force Base, near Oklahoma City. It explained how, for more than a decade, Tinker AFB had illegally discharged untreated cancer-causing chemicals into public waters, despite reprimands by the state, the Environmental Protection Agency, the General Accounting Office, and, incredibly, the Air Force itself. We concluded that year’s synopsis with the following warning: “While Tinker exemplifies the Pentagon’s toxic waste problem, nobody knows the full extent of the problem nationwide and the military doesn’t really know what to do except to conduct more studies. The Air Force has hired several military contractors to clean up its toxic sites; ironically, all of them are major toxic polluters themselves.”
As this year’s synopsis points out, although the 1990 story appeared in a national newsweekly, it still qualified as an undercovered story because of the extraordinary national scope of the problem and the limited coverage it received elsewhere. As the 1986 synopsis warned, it appears that little has been done to remedy the military’s toxic waste problem since. The Newsweek authors, Bill Turque and John McCormick, noted that the story has received fragmentary attention with bits and pieces of it appearing in the regional press. And, while there has been extensive attention given to the Department of Energy’s pollution problems, “the Pentagon’s slovenly environmental record has been a largely untold story.” Not surprisingly, the principal beneficiaries of the limited exposure given the story is the Pentagon “as well as the giant military contractors who often pollute under the color of their work for the Department of Defense. The authors feel it is important for the public to be aware of this problem since the Pentagon owns millions of acres of land in this country and “Its stewardship of that land is a story that touches thousands of communities.”