Toxic Immunity

By Luoma, Jon R. | Mother Jones, November/December 2003 | Go to article overview

Toxic Immunity


Luoma, Jon R., Mother Jones


Faced with a hazardous-waste crisis, the Pentagon is pushing hard to exempt itself from the nation's environmental laws.

"It feels like somebody wrote a new rule-the bigger a mess you make, the easier it should be to just walk away," says Laura Olah, a Wisconsin activist who heads a grass-roots group called Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger. Badger, in this case, is a former Army ammunition plant near the town of Sauk Prairie, Wisconsin-a sprawling industrial complex that operated from World War II through the mid-1970s and produced not only munitions, but a flood of toxic wastes. Today, a witches' brew of contaminants, including the heavy metals mercury and cadmium and the cancer-causing compounds carbon tetrachloride and trichloroethylene, is seeping into the groundwater beneath the 7,300-acre site. For more than a decade, several local farm families unwittingly drew their well water directly from the heart of the contamination; in the nearby Wisconsin River, sediments are contaminated with more than 20 times the allowable amount of mercury.

Olah says her group just wants the Defense Department to clean up the site before it abandons Badger entirely. But the Pentagon has missed a series of deadlines in a cleanup agreement with the state of Wisconsin. In recent years, it has also backed away from a plan to remove large volumes of contaminated soil from the base, proposing instead to fence off and monitor the toxic hot spots.

Badger is hardly an isolated case. From Cape Cod in Massachusetts to McClellan Air Force Base in California, the Pentagon is facing mounting criticism for failing to clean up military sites contaminated with everything from old munitions to radioactive materials and residues from biological-weapons research. Now, citing the demands of the war on terrorism and working with sympathetic officials in the administration and Congress, the department has stepped up efforts to remove substantial parts of its operations from environmental oversight.

Last December, Defense officials drew up a 24-page strategy memorandum, laying out a plan for a "multi-year campaign" to exempt the military from federal laws including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Air Act, as well as rules governing solid and hazardous wastes. The strategy also called for Congress to state "that munitions deposited and remaining on operational ranges are not 'solid wastes'"-a move that with one stroke would exempt the Pentagon from having to clean up the old shells, fuels, and other weapons "constituents" that turn places like Badger into health hazards.

The Pentagon is seeking these changes even though current law already allows it to gain exemptions from any environmental regulations that might hinder military preparedness; according to a 2002 study by Congress' General Accounting Office, the Defense Department has never run into any significant problems in this regard.

Nonetheless, Bush appointees at the EPA appear to have embraced the Pentagon's agenda. In April, EPA enforcement chief John Suarez told Congress that the Pentagon's proposals to ease hazardous-waste regulations were "appropriate" and in line with "existing EPA policy"-even though only weeks earlier, a report from Suarez's own staff to the President's Office of Management and Budget had specifically warned against relaxing the waste rules, noting that the munitions could present "an imminent and substantial endangerment of health or the environment." The hazardous-waste exemption failed to pass Congress this spring-though the Pentagon got one step closer to an item on its environmental wish list when the House approved an exemption to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which has been an impediment to a controversial Navy sonar program. Hill staffers say they expect the hazardous-waste proposal to be introduced again in the coming months.

The changes could affect thousands of sites across the nation. …

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