Continued resistance to transparency and accountability — DoD’s massive toxic waste responsibility

In it’s most recent update to a disturbing and deeply-researched ongoing report, ProPublica documents the state of toxic pollution left behind by the military across the U.S. This is a problem of massive proportions that is more than three decades in the making — ever since

Congress banned American industries and localities from disposing of hazardous waste in these sorts of “open burns,” concluding that such uncontrolled processes created potentially unacceptable health and environmental hazards. Companies that had openly burned waste for generations were required to install incinerators with smokestacks and filters and to adhere to strict limits on what was released into the air. Lawmakers granted the Pentagon and its contractors a temporary reprieve from those rules to give engineers time to address the unique aspects of destroying explosive military waste.

A quarter of a century ago, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution that ordered the Department of Defense to halt the practice “as soon as possible.”

As part of this investigation, ProPublica acquired a dataset of all facilities that the Department of Defense considers contaminated—and have used the data to publish an interactive news application called Bombs in Your Backyard that enables the public to find hazardous sites near them — and learn what, if anything, is being done to remedy the pollution.

The “what, if anything, is being done to remedy the pollution” is a telling saga of the Pentagon turning its head to avoid confronting the devastation created by its “open burn” policy and practice.  It merits a close reading. Below are some highlights on the secrecy and lack of accountability aspects.

ProPublica points to federal records identify nearly 200 sites that have been or are still being used to open-burn hazardous explosives across the country. Some blow up aging stockpile bombs in open fields. Others burn bullets, weapons parts and…raw explosives in bonfire-like piles.  While the “facilities operate under special government permits that are supposed to keep the process safe, limiting the release of toxins to levels well below what the government thinks can make people sick,” according to ProPublica, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, which governs the process under federal law, acknowledge that the permits provide scant protection.  Indeed, internal EPA records obtained by ProPublica show there are

…at least 51 active sites across the country where the Department of Defense or its contractors are today burning or detonating munitions or raw explosives in the open air, often in close proximity to schools, homes and water supplies. The documents — EPA PowerPoint presentations made to senior agency staff — describe something of a runaway national program, based on “a dirty technology” with “virtually no emissions controls.” According to officials at the agency, the military’s open burn program not only results in extensive contamination, but “staggering” cleanup costs that can reach more than half a billion dollars at a single site.

The sites of open burns — including those operated by private contractors and the Department of Energy — have led to 54 separate federal Superfund declarations and have exposed the people who live near them to dangers that will persist for generations.  …

Of course, the Pentagon could determine with greater accuracy any possible health threat. It could, for instance, actually sample and test the emissions generated by the burns. Aside from a few research sites, neither the EPA nor the Pentagon was able to point to an example where this was done.

It has fallen to non-government researchers, however, to probe the depths of the Defense Department’s indifference to public health and safety:

ProPublica reviewed the open burns and detonations program as part of an unprecedented examination of America’s handling of munitions at sites in the United States, from their manufacture and testing to their disposal. We collected tens of thousands of pages of documents, and interviewed more than 100 state and local officials, lawmakers, military historians, scientists, toxicologists and Pentagon staff. Much of the information gathered has never before been released to the public, leaving the full extent of military-related pollution a secret. …. (Italics added)

“They are not subject to the kind of scrutiny and transparency and disclosure to the public as private sites are,” said Mathy Stanislaus, who until January worked on Department of Defense site cleanup issues as the assistant administrator for land and emergency management at the EPA.

ProPublica’s examination suggests that the Department of Defense has used an array of bureaucratic tools to shorten the list by almost any means legally available ever since Congress directed it to fix its contaminated sites. The agency also has for decades lobbied Congress for legislation that would make the military exempt from the nation’s most significant antipollution laws — the very laws that compel it to clean up old bases in the first place, and has fought to steer the science that determines how some of the most poisonous contaminants are regulated.

It is depressing to note that such DoD resistance to following the law and protecting the health of their employees and their families — and the surrounding public —  is a recurrent theme. In 2011, POGO reported on Toxic Secrecy: The Marine Corps’ Cover-up of Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune, and a broad array of non-profit organizations allied to fight a attempt under the auspices of the National Defense Authorization Act (since attempted on a regular basis) to to exempt from disclosure under the FOIA “information on military tactics, techniques, and procedures, and of military rules of engagement.” Just about anything they want to keep secret, in other words.  A coalition letter addressing the latest attempt is here.



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