Toxic Immunity

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 grassroots 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.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

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. Late last year, EPA staffers prepared an internal briefing document for Suarez, suggesting that removing toxic waste just from the Pentagon's thousands of weapons ranges "has the potential to be the largest environmental cleanup program ever to be implemented in the United States." According to the report, which was never publicly released, the contaminated ranges cover an area as large as Florida, or about 40 million acres. Yet, it noted, there had been a "disturbing trend" on the Pentagon's part of taking "ill-advised short-cuts to limit costs."

In all, more than 27,000 military waste sites have been documented nationwide; they include the vast Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod, where contamination threatens the drinking water for more than a quarter million residents, as well as Fort Detrick in Maryland, where cleanup contractors in 2001 turned up test tubes filled with residues of anthrax and other bioweapons materials. But even as the scope of the problem continues to expand, internal EPA reports suggest, the Department of Defense is seeking to conceal the extent of the contamination.

According to a survey of inactive weapons ranges commissioned by the Pentagon in 2000, nearly half the 206 sites studied lacked adequate fencing, or even simple signs, to keep the public away from areas where hazardous munitions might lie. The same report also found that wastes from chemical or biological weapons might be present at more than 50 percent of the sites. The document's first draft stopped just short of calling the Defense Department a scofflaw, stating that it "often does not adhere to...applicable statutes or regulations" and concluding that "the ranges in this survey pose potentially significant threats to human health and the environment."

By the time the final version of the report appeared later that year, both of those statements, along with seven additional pages of observations and criticisms of the Pentagon, had been removed. Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -- a whistleblower group that obtained copies of the original document -- says agency staffers told him that the report had been censored in response to pressure from the Pentagon.

In recent months, the Pentagon has quietly scored a series of other concessions from the EPA. In one decision -- announced in a press release late on a Friday last July -- the agency declared that it would not, as had been widely expected, tighten drinking-water standards for perchlorate, a rocket-fuel additive that has contaminated scores of bases and weapons-manufacturing sites. Perchlorate seeping into the Colorado River from a Nevada rocket plant has contaminated the drinking-water supply for 15 million people; a recent study by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group suggests that most of the nation's winter lettuce -- the bulk of which is irrigated with Colorado River water -- contains significant amounts of the toxin.

Also this summer, the EPA announced it would no longer require property owners to remove polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are also suspected carcinogens, from buildings before selling them -- a change that would largely benefit the Pentagon, which owns hundreds of PCB-contaminated sites. Under the new rules, the Pentagon could transfer those sites to schools, hospitals, and other civilian users without incurring liability for the contamination or requiring evidence of any cleanup.

Watchdog groups expect the Defense Department to continue pushing for environmental exemptions, both within the administration and in Congress. "This isn't over," says Karen Wayland of the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council. "There was such a public outcry when they first floated these ideas a couple of years ago that we thought they'd back off. But they're casting it as an issue of military readiness in the age of terrorism, and leaning hard on everyone from the moderate Republicans in Congress to the EPA to get out of the way."