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The Slow Poisoning of Our Soldiers, Families on U.S. Bases

Why has the military waited this long to address water contamination?
Sick Veterans

While it is generally understood that the U.S. Armed Forces are among the world’s largest polluters, it is not generally recognized that some of the most significant pollution occurs here in the United States at military bases and facilities.

As most pollutants have the greatest effect on those whose immune systems are not fully developed, their impact on military dependent communities, whose populations are disproportionately young children and pregnant women, are of particular concern. Everyone living in communities which host military installations, however, is at great risk, as chronic toxicity—the exposure to and ingestion of toxins over an extended period—can be devastating even to those with fully developed immune systems.

According to an explosive report by the Center for Public Integrity in August, polluted water and soil have been found at approximately 400 active and closed military bases in the United States. Of these, 149 have been designated Superfund Sites by the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA).

This, in 2017?

Among the most significant contaminants are perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), the basis for chemical foams used to fight aviation fires which were used throughout the Department of Defense (DoD) from 1970 to 2015 at almost every location with a significant airfield. PFCs have been recognized as a significant environmental threat since at least the 1950s, when DuPont chemicals began purchasing PFCs from 3M and was told by 3M to dispose of them only by incineration or at a chemical waste facility. 3M, incidentally, discontinued producing PFC firefighting foams in 2000 because, according to Dick Ottman, then 3M’s foam marketing manager, of its ”proven persistence, pervasiveness, and toxicity.” Mr. Ottoman further stated that 3M “has no intention to ever get back into the foam business.”

Earlier this year, DuPont and Chemours (a DuPont spin-off) agreed to a $670.7 million settlement in a PFC lawsuit in the Mid-Ohio Valley. Added to the $350 million initial settlement, which was reached in 2004, the companies will have spent in excess of $1 billion on this lawsuit alone. Part of the $350 million initial settlement funded a six-year medical study of PFOA, one of the principle PFCs. This study determined “probable links” between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, high blood pressure, pregnancy-induced hypertension and thyroid disease. Other lawsuits, in various jurisdictions, have also been filed.

PFCs are a particularly difficult contaminant because they have a very low viscosity and their run-off quickly enters the water table. In addition, they bioaccumulate at high rates when individuals drink contaminated water. DoD estimates that 400 U.S. military bases may have PFC contamination issues. In 2015, DoD put aside $100 million to cover the costs of PFC contamination through 2020; however, the costs through June 2017 already exceed $150 million and DoD still needs to examine 200 more bases. Because of their persistence in the environment, it’s thought that these chemicals will contaminate drinking water for generations to come..

At Peterson Air Force base in Colorado Springs, PFC levels in groundwater are up to 1,000 times higher than the EPA health advisory. As a result, the town of Fountain, Colo., south of Colorado Springs, spent $3.6 million for water lines and alternative clean water supplies after municipal wells were contaminated. The Air Force is supposed to reimburse the town for $800,000 of the cost.

At Pease Air Force base in Portsmouth, N.H., 350 children who attended day care and over 1,200 workers have elevated levels of PFCs from drinking PFC-contaminated water. Testing of wells at homes outside the base has also shown the presence of PFCs. The Air Force has begun the process of notifying those who served at Pease that they may have been exposed to PFC contaminated drinking water, but funding issues currently limit the follow on health study.

Pease Air Force base also used the Coakley Landfill Superfund Site in Greenland, N.H., a town in the Seacoast area of New Hampshire, as a dump between the late 1960s and 1982. In earlier years, the Air Force reportedly dumped a variety of materials at the un-lined landfill, including waste solvents, other materials and trash.  In later years, the Air Force operated a waste-to-energy program and dumped up to 120 tons of ash a day in the landfill resulting in a 50-foot layer of ash beneath a permeable cap.

In 2016, after a double CDC-defined pediatric cancer cluster was determined in a five-town area of the Seacoast, PFCs were detected at high concentrations in groundwater around the landfill impacting private and municipal water supplies in up to four towns around the landfill. A few months ago, state officials admitted that there was also four times the expected rate of pediatric brain cancers in the same area. In addition, PFC concentrations detected in a surface water body that originates near the landfill and flows through three Seacoast towns ties for the second highest detection of one PFC anywhere in the world. That brook is stocked with 5,000 fish per year for public recreational fishing. PFCs are also known to accumulate in fish tissue.

Among the most striking examples of military leadership abrogating its responsibilities is the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune’s water problem — which is really a scandal and an outrage. From at least 1953 to 1985, service members and their dependents housed at Camp Lejeune ingested and were exposed to contaminated drinking water at levels as much as 3,400 times above maximum contaminant levels.

In the early 1980s numerous laboratories testing Camp Lejeune’s water reported dangerous levels of contamination, in one case directly to the base commander, Major General D. J. Fulham, to no avail. During this time, Camp Lejeune officials reported to the EPA that there were no environmental problems at Camp Lejeune and, in response to an inquiry from the State of North Carolina, refused to provide water testing results.

The sordid tale of Camp Lejeune water pollution runs a number of pages and is replete with examples of unconscionable leadership failures.

The suffering of those exposed to the contaminated water there wasn’t addressed until the Janey Ensminger Act was signed into law in August 2012. Named after a nine-year-old girl who died from cancer and whose father was stationed there, the law requires that the Veterans Administration provide medical care for 15 specific illnesses linked to the contamination to military and family members who had resided at Camp Lejeune between 1957 and 1987.

The common thread in the examples above is a disgraceful disregard for both military dependents and those in the cities and towns which host military installations. Pentagon efforts to address this issue are clearly not a priority and woefully inadequate.The Department of Defense budget is almost $700 billion; a compelling argument can be made, and has been made by President Trump, that every penny we spend in the Middle East is wasted. With adequate presidential leadership, it is difficult to believe that those in Congress, who can always find more money for overseas adventures, can’t find funding to clean up the mess the Defense Department has made here at home.

In the final analysis, nothing will change without the Commander in Chief getting personally involved. President Trump should be up to the task.

James W. McConnell is a Retired U.S. Army Colonel and a New Hampshire State Representative. He is also President of the New Hampshire State Council of Vietnam Veterans.