The Pentagon’s Toxic Legacy
The nation’s biggest polluter isn’t a corporation, it’s the Pentagon. Every year the Department of Defense churns out more than 750,000 tons of hazardous waste—more than the top three chemical companies combined. Yet the military remains largely exempt from compliance with most federal and state environmental laws. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Pentagon’s partner in crime, is working hard to keep it that way. For the past 50 years, the federal government, defense contractors, and the chemical industry have blocked public health protections against perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel that has been shown to affect children’s growth and mental progress by disrupting the function of the thyroid gland, which regulates brain development.
Perchloraten has been leaking from hundreds of defense plants and military installations across the country. The EPA has reported that perchlorate is present in drinking and groundwater supplies in 35 states. Center for Disease Control and independent studies have also overwhelmingly shown that perchlorate is in our food supplies, cow’s milk, and human breast milk. As a result virtually every American has some level of perchlorate in their body.
Currently only two states,
In 2001 the EPA estimated that the total liability for the cleanup of toxic military sites would exceed $350 billion, or five times the Superfund Act liability of private industry. But the federal government has been complacent and allowed perchlorate to run rampant throughout water supplies. This negligence and lack of regulatory oversight has left the Pentagon, NASA, and defense contractors free to set their own levels, trimming the high, but necessary costs of restoring groundwater quality.
While the situation has become dire in recent years, it was the Clinton administration that didn’t do enough to clean up these sites and certainly did not keep a close eye on how the Pentagon spent the money it received. During the 1990s the Defense Department spent only $3.5 billion a year cleaning up toxic military sites—much of that on studies, not actual work. In 1998 the Defense Science Review Board, a federal advisory committee set up to provide independent advice to the Secretary of Defense, looked at the problem and concluded that the Pentagon had no clear environmental cleanup policy, goals, or program, which led lawyer Jonathan Turley, who holds the Shapiro Chair for Public Interest Law at George Washington University, to call the Pentagon the nation’s "premier environmental villain."
"If they can spend $1 million on a cruise missile, it seems kind of ridiculous they won’t spend $200,000 to see if our food is contaminated with rocket fuel," says Renee Sharp, a scientist with Environmental Working Group.
But if the
These military sites, which total more than 50 million acres, are among the most dangerous legacies left by the Pentagon. They are strewn with toxic bomb fragments, unexploded munitions, buried hazardous waste, fuel dumps, open pits filled with debris, burn piles, and rocket fuel. An internal EPA memo from 1998 warned of the looming problem: "As measured by acres, and probably as measured by number of sites, ranges and buried munitions represent the largest cleanup program in the
When a site gets too polluted, the Pentagon closes it down and turns it over to another federal agency. Over the past three decades, the Pentagon has transferred more than 16 million acres, often with little or no remediation. Former bombing areas have been turned into wildlife refuges, city and state parks, golf courses, landfills, airports, and shopping malls.
Serious contamination of streams, soil, and groundwater is a problem at nearly every military training ground. The sites are often saturated with heavy metals and other pollutants as well as unexploded weapons. The Government Accountability Office list of unexploded munitions left behind on many training sites reads like a catalog of an arms bonanza—"hand grenades, rockets, guided missiles, projectiles, mortars, rifle grenades, and bombs."
The government has gone to great lengths to cover up its deadly legacy. In 2002 the Pentagon, defense contractors, and perchlorate makers persuaded the editors of a prestigious journal to rewrite an article on the chemical’s health effects without the lead author’s knowledge or consent. Then, in 2005, the White House loaded a National Academy of Science panel, which was set up to assess the health risks of perchlorate, with paid consultants of the rocket fuel industry. Not surprisingly, the panel recommended that exposure levels be set many times higher than the doses recommended by numerous independent research studies.
"Perchlorate provides a textbook example of a corrupted health protection system where polluters, the Pentagon, the White House, and the EPA have conspired to block health protections in order to pad budgets, curry political favor, and protect corporate profits," Richard Wiles, executive director of the Environmental Working Group, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on May 7 during a hearing held by committee chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA).
"All the pieces needed to support strong health protections are in place," said Wiles. "This is a nightmare of epic proportions for the Department of Defense and its contractors, and rather than address it head-on, they have spent 50 years and millions of dollars trying to avoid it."