Pin It

Deadly dependence 

The South's economic reliance on military bases has left a toxic legacy throughout the region

On a summer day three years ago, Elijah Robinson was digging in the yard of his brand-new patio home in Columbia, S.C., when an unexpected sensation washed over him. Even though he was covered in protective clothing, including gloves and boots, the 58-year-old retired maintenance man felt as if his body had just been hurled into a fire. He raced into the one-story house through the garage door, passing his wife as he stripped off his clothes. "Darlene," he said, "I'm burning."

Robinson showered, but the feeling didn't subside. Nor did it leave the next day, or the next. He tried to hide the pain from his wife, but his appearance gave him away. His arms broke into runny sores. The side of his neck grew swollen. His face swelled up, too, to the point of appearing disfigured. Soon Darlene Robinson, a minister, was feeling burning sensations of her own. She developed blisters on her skin, which sometimes bled. Her brown skin grew darker and spotted.

That summer, the Robinsons' house, located in a Columbia neighborhood called The Summit, started smelling like geraniums. "It was so sweet, it would nauseate you," Darlene says. "It felt like the air in the house was taken from us." When they were home, both husband and wife had trouble breathing; they suffered relentless itching that scratching couldn't quell. Doctors advised them to open their windows, but that only made the symptoms worse. In the early mornings, Darlene says, "my lungs would wake me up trying to get air." The ailments afflicted others, too. Some neighbors reported that their children had developed skin rashes and breathing difficulties. After the Robinsons' twin grandsons visited, the boys likewise developed symptoms of their own. Then one of them, a sickly child who had been born premature, suddenly and unexpectedly died. JaSean Robinson was 10 months old.

Richard Albright recognized the symptoms immediately. An environmental specialist with the District of Columbia Department of Health, Albright has been overseeing the cleanup of a wealthy Washington neighborhood contaminated with chemical weapons.

When Darlene Robinson accidentally called Albright's department -- she was looking for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- the receptionist knew exactly where to direct her call. "She was describing these symptoms, and I thought, 'This sounds like Lewisite,'" says Albright, a talkative 61-year-old with a bushy gray mustache. "It couldn't be anything else." A chemical warfare agent developed in 1918 and stockpiled during World War II, Lewisite was designed to make the skin blister and burn. It causes breathing problems and is potentially fatal. "The joke of the day," says Albright, "was that if you put three drops on the tongue of a dog, it would kill the owner."

When the Robinsons went to the University of Texas for evaluations in 2002, medical toxicologist Arch Carson agreed with Albright, concluding that the couple's symptoms were "consistent with Lewisite exposures." Even the smell matched the Robinsons' description: According to a fact sheet published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Lewisite has an odor like geraniums."

It turns out that The Summit was the site of the Pontiac Precision Bombing Range, an 1,873-acre tract used by the military during the 1940s. At the time, the United States had fallen behind in its chemical-weapons technology, particularly its ordnance delivery systems. Fearing that Hitler could unleash nerve or blistering agents at any time, the U.S. military secretly commandeered non-chemical bombing ranges to test the newest generation of weapons containing poisons like Lewisite. "These were not listed in any of the journals or manifests," Albright says, yet they presented long-term threats. "The chemical rounds don't have to detonate. They'll eventually corrode through and contaminate the environment."

The bombing range was all but forgotten until April 2001, shortly before Elijah Robinson's garden incident. That month, a plumber laying pipe at a construction site in The Summit found eight green-striped canisters and accidentally punctured one. He developed blisters on his arms and side, along with breathing problems. Subsequent tests detected the presence of low levels of Lewisite in the soil. Still, the military remains adamant that its practice bombs at the Pontiac range contained only sand and flour. The Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for cleanup of former military sites, insists the initial test data was wrong and residents of The Summit are safe. "It is our contention that there is no chemical contamination at the site," says Corps spokesman Billy Birdwell. "We have no evidence of that."

Double-edged sword

In the South, the military's presence, and its ghost, are everywhere. No other region of the country is more dependent on the armed services for the vitality of its communities. More than 55 percent of all soldiers in the continental United States are stationed on Southern bases, fueling the economies of small towns and large cities from Norfolk to Key West. According to statewide surveys, the military pours $65 billion annually into the economies of Georgia, Florida and North Carolina alone. In Onslow County, N.C., for example, 87 percent of the county population is directly tied to Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base, located in Jacksonville, and the annual impact is estimated at $2 billion. "If it wasn't for Camp Lejeune," says local activist Jerry Ensminger, "Jacksonville would be a fishing community, and an extremely small one."

But along with its financial benefits, the U.S. military has left a toxic legacy throughout the South, fouling the ecosystems and threatening the public health of those who live near its current and former facilities. "Every one of the major military installations in the state has significant contamination," says Jim Ussery, a program manager for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Much of the pollution comes in the form of run-of-the-mill poisons like solvents and pesticides. "But military bases also have things you don't find in the private sector, like mustard gas and ordnance," Ussery adds.

Take a meandering road trip through Dixie, and you'll never be far from an installation with its own disaster story to tell. Start at Florida's Homestead Air Force Base -- one of 33 Southern military sites on the Superfund's National Priorities List -- where the soil is tainted with arsenic and lead, some of it from an old aircraft fabrication plant. Pass MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, where ditch water has recently contained the breakdown products of mustard agent, a chemical weapon. On the other end of the Sunshine State, you'll come to Naval Air Station Pensacola, where metals like arsenic, barium, cadmium and iron have seeped into the groundwater at levels considered "unacceptable" by the federal government.

Zigzag into Georgia, where the Marine Corps Logistics Base near Albany was forced to pay for its neighbors to hook up to a municipal water supply after its own groundwater was contaminated with compounds like carbon tetrachloride, which causes liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage. Head north toward Robins Air Force Base near Macon, where officials have been working to contain a landfill and sludge lagoon contaminated with organic solvents, heavy metals and cyanide.

Now continue on to the countryside north of Durham, N.C., where homeowners living on the site of the World War II-era Camp Butner have stumbled on unexploded mortar shells and even bombs in their yards, putting themselves and their children at risk for chemical exposure and accidental detonations. Give a nod to Virginia -- home to 11 of those 33 Superfund priority sites -- before heading west across Tennessee. In Memphis, you'll come to the now-defunct Dunn Field, where 29 mustard-filled German bomb casings were destroyed and buried during World War II, followed by medical waste, herbicides, and glass ampoules containing Lewisite. End your trip in Alabama, where the government has built a controversial incinerator to burn the chemical weapons stockpiled at the Anniston Army Depot since the 1960s. Though no one has been injured by these weapons, says spokesperson Cathy Coleman, there have been more than 900 leaks in the stockpile over the past 22 years. Most of them come from rockets containing sarin, the chemical used in a 1995 terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 12 people and injured 5,000 others.

All told, the Pentagon's Defense Environmental Restoration Program lists 279 contaminated military bases -- some active, some no longer in use -- throughout the Southern states. The future price tag for cleaning up these installations comes to more than $4 billion. "The military's impact rivals what we've seen in the former Soviet Union, in terms of the depth and breadth of contamination," says Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group. "A lot of the casualties aren't even known, because people aren't tracing them."

Despite this impact, the Pentagon has been pushing for exemptions from some of the nation's most important environmental laws -- measures that would allow the Defense Department to evade some of the responsibility for cleaning up its own mess and preventing other disasters in the future.

One place where the military's casualties are becoming known is North Carolina's Camp Lejeune, which has garnered a fair amount of attention on Capitol Hill lately. There, Marine families have recently learned that much of the water they drank from the 1960s through the '80s -- and possibly earlier -- had been tainted with volatile organic compounds linked to birth defects, liver damage and cancer. Much of the contamination came from within the base itself; the rest came from a nearby business. As early as October 1980, a chemical analysis of some of Lejeune's drinking supply warned, in capital letters, "WATER IS HIGHLY CONTAMINATED."

"I couldn't believe anyone would ignore that, but they did," says Tom Townsend, a retired Marine major who lived at Camp Lejeune in the 1960s. In fact, it was not until February 1985, after 50,000 to 200,000 people had consumed the water, that Lejeune shut down its last contaminated wells, announcing breezily that "two of the wells ... have had to be taken off line because minute (trace) amounts of several organic compounds have been detected."

Since then, it has become clear just how inaccurate the words "trace" and "minute" were. The base's Hadnot Point water system contained 280 times more trichloroethylene, a degreasing solvent, than federal standards would allow today. Women who drank the trichloroethylene-tainted water while pregnant with male fetuses were four times more likely than normal to have low-birth weight babies, according to a 1998 study by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Now the agency is studying childhood cancers and birth deformities such as spina bifida in children whose mothers were pregnant at Lejeune. Preliminary findings, released in July 2003 and analyzed by the office of U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, suggest that the cancer and birth-defect rate is more than three times that of the general population.

Marine officials did not return phone calls for this story, but the early study results don't surprise Townsend. His wife drank the Hadnot Point water when she was pregnant, and their son Christopher was born with congenital heart defects, along with brain damage and problems with his spleen, liver and pancreas. "Everything was a mess," the father says. "All systems were disasters." The boy died 103 days after he was born. Doctors at Bethesda Naval Hospital performed a post-mortem examination, and "the adverse effects noted in the autopsy matched very closely with a number of studies about the effects of volatile organic compounds on infants," Townsend says. "He matched about eight of the 10 on the list."

Since then, Townsend has joined forces with other former Marines to hold the corps accountable. One of his new allies is Jerry Ensminger, whose wife spent most of the first trimester of her pregnancy at Camp Lejeune. Ensminger's daughter Janey developed acute lymphocytic leukemia and died in 1985, shortly after her ninth birthday. Now, almost two decades later, the father still feels disgust when he thinks about how the Marines sat on the well-test data for more than four years. "They figured that they were providing the water to a transient population," he says. "Whatever health effects came of it, these people would be spread all over the world, and no one would be able to trace it back to Camp Lejeune's drinking water."

"I found a bomb in the driveway"

As Jerry Ensminger was gathering evidence of official neglect at Camp Lejeune, he met a retired Marine in his 80s who was in the final stages of a battle with cancer. "The man told me some horror stories," Ensminger recalls. "When DDT was banned, and people turned it in from all over the base, they took it out to a road in one of those tanker trucks that had sprinklers on it, and spread it up and down this dirt road. That's what they did with used motor oil and solvent. When lead paint was banned, they took truckfuls of it into the woods and buried it."

Practices like those, at bases throughout the South, are at the heart of the military's toxic legacy. "For much of the history of the United States, there were no environmental laws," says Steve Taylor, an organizer for the Military Toxics Project, a national watchdog group. "Everybody, including the military, just took stuff out and dumped it." The military wasn't alone in these practices, but its sheer scale dwarfs that of any industrial polluter. What's more, federal cleanup efforts initially focused on the private sector, allowing the armed services to defer responsibility for longer than their corporate counterparts. "Before the late '80s and early '90s, there was virtually no consciousness at either the state or federal level about military environmental contamination," Taylor says.

Defense Department officials offer a simple explanation for these early waste-handling mistakes: They didn't know any better. "These were common practices," says Fred Otto, restoration program manager at Georgia's Robins Air Force Base. "At that point, they didn't realize the impact of solvents and cleaners on the soil and groundwater." Soldiers at Robins disposed of chemicals in a 1.5-acre sludge lagoon from 1962 through 1978; today the lagoon and a nearby landfill are on the Superfund National Priority List. The official roster of contaminants at the site includes mercury, lead, arsenic, benzene, DDT, copper, and carbon tetrachloride.

Of course, what distinguishes the military from industrial polluters is not just its magnitude, but also the specialized wastes it produces, like unexploded ordnance. According to the EPA, there are up to 16,000 current and former military ranges nationwide, some of them covering hundreds of square miles, that are potentially contaminated with munitions. And the problem is not only accidental detonation: Based on government documents, the Military Toxics Project has compiled a list of 25 different chemicals commonly found in these munitions, some of which have the potential to cause leukemia, respiratory system cancer, and damage to the heart, kidneys, liver and central nervous system. One Bush-era EPA memo said that removing ordnance from past and present ranges "has the potential to be the largest environmental cleanup program ever."

The EPA surveyed 206 of those ranges and concluded in 2000 that they "pose potentially significant threats to human health and the environment." Half appeared to be contaminated with chemical and biological weapons, including Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base, Alabama's former Fort McClellan (where soldiers used to work with live nerve agents), and Virginia's former Nansemond Ordnance Depot. Despite the serious hazards, the EPA noted, half the Defense Department investigations were proceeding without outside supervision. "Regulatory oversight is even more important for [unexploded ordnance] situations," said the EPA study, "because of the potential for catastrophic events arising from the detonation of conventional ordnance and releases from chemical or biological weapons."

In 2002, just a few months after Amy and Wyatt Blalock bought their first home in Rougemont, N.C., outside Durham, they received a temporary evacuation notice from the Army Corps of Engineers. Rockets, mines, bazooka rounds and hand grenades had been found near their home, located on the site of a 40,000-acre former training facility called Camp Butner. After the Corps tested a portion of their land but declined to check the rest, Wyatt borrowed a metal detector from his brother-in-law and started walking the area nearest his house. One evening, he came inside, his face drained of color. "I found a bomb in the driveway, 30 feet from the kitchen door," he told his wife. Now the Blalocks find themselves unable to sell their property, and unable to convince the Army to clean up seven of their 10 acres. "We're stuck here," Amy says. "They told us these bombs were built to last. They'll be here for our grandchildren's children."

Wanted: more exemptions

Military officials say they've come into the 21st century, adopting modern waste-handling practices designed to keep the public safe. At Robins Air Force Base, for example, new technologies have reduced hazardous waste by more than half, and the remaining materials are drummed up and shipped to appropriate treatment centers. "At this time, we know far more about the impacts on the environment," says Mary Kicklighter, the Georgia base's deputy director of environmental management. At the Pentagon's Virginia headquarters, environmental specialist Kurt Kratz adds that the military has decreased its hazardous-waste generation by 69 percent since 1992. It is now studying "emerging contaminants that science doesn't know about," in an effort to find non-polluting substitutes.

Even critics give the armed forces credit. "There are people within the military who have been very innovative in the adoption of pollution prevention practices," says Lenny Siegel, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight.

When it comes to taking responsibility for the mess they've already made, though, the Pentagon receives considerably less praise from both elected officials and citizen groups. "The military has been forced to pay more attention to environmental contamination, to budget more money for cleanup," says organizer Steve Taylor. "Like every large polluter, the Department of Defense has responded to that pressure by attempting to change the laws and regulations used to make them address the problems. Large polluters don't like to be forced to clean up their messes. They don't like to admit that they've been poisoning people."

In a December 2002 briefing paper, the Defense Department outlined its plans to launch a "multi-year campaign" to exempt itself from parts of the nation's key laws governing air pollution, hazardous waste and wildlife protection. Three months later, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz asked the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force to identify burdensome environmental proposals from which the Pentagon should seek immunity. "In a growing number of cases, environmental regulation and litigation threaten to limit our continued ability to use these lands and airspace for necessary military training and testing," Wolfowitz wrote in March 2003.

The week before, EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman contradicted this claim, telling a congressional committee, "I don't believe that there is a training mission anywhere in this country that is being held up or not taking place because of environmental protection regulation." Nonetheless, last November, Congress granted the Defense Department certain exemptions from the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Wildlife advocates say the changes threaten the lives of whales, porpoises and dolphins.

This year the Pentagon upped the ante. It has proposed certain exemptions from some of the major environmental laws governing human health: the Clean Air Act, the Superfund law, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates hazardous waste. The most controversial of the proposals would strip the EPA and the states of the authority to order the cleanup of most munitions-related contamination on operational ranges. The proposal would cover 24 million acres -- an area larger than all of South Carolina.

"When you drop a bomb for training on an area Congress has specifically set aside for that purpose, just intuitively, that doesn't strike me as a hazardous-waste activity," says Joe Willging, a Defense Department attorney. Willging admits that military readiness has never been compromised by the hazardous-waste laws, but he worries that one pro-environment judge could create a "train wreck" by ordering the military to stop using a contaminated range. "When it comes to training soldiers who are actively involved in combat," he says, "we can't afford that one train wreck."

Pentagon officials insist they can be trusted as stewards of their own ranges, and that disaster could result if they restricted training in any way. "We're putting our soldiers, sailors, airmen at risk if we don't allow them to train with live munitions," says the Pentagon's Kratz. "The ability to conduct combat is a perishable skill. We need to have our military members train and train hard to survive in combat."

Still, the military's proposals have garnered widespread opposition. "The Pentagon is unquestionably the biggest polluter and most recalcitrant environmental violator on the planet," charged Dan Meyer, a former Navy gunnery officer who now serves as counsel to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "The Pentagon is the last place that any sane policymaker should want to confer environmental immunity." In April, attorneys general from 35 states and four territories warned congressional leaders that the measures "would significantly impair our ability to protect the health of our citizens and their environment." According to the attorneys, allowing tainted groundwater to spread to the edge of ranges unchecked would increase the odds of public exposure and jack up the cost of cleanup. The Pentagon's proposal, they charged, "would potentially turn its ranges, and the groundwater under them, into national sacrifice zones."

In the wake of the Camp Lejeune water scandal, it appears as if the military will not win its exemptions this year. But community advocates warn that the fight isn't over. "We should absolutely expect to see these proposals next year," says Steve Taylor, "especially if the current administration is re-unelected."

One instrucive detail in the exemption battle is which attorneys general didn't sign the protest letter. North Carolina's Roy Cooper was a signatory, along with his colleagues in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia. Missing from the list were the other Southern officials, including Georgia's Thurbert Baker, Florida's Charlie Crist, and South Carolina's Henry McMaster.

"The Florida military bases have really outstanding environmental records," says Crist spokesman Bob Sparks. "That's what he chose to focus on." (As an example, Sparks cites Naval Air Station Pensacola -- the Superfund site with the metals contamination -- for working with community groups to restore aquatic plants.) But there was another reason Crist declined to sign the letter, Sparks says: "A lot of citizens of Florida are on military bases. When you take into account military families that go to the local schools and spend their money in the communities, the economic impact is probably billions of dollars."

Therein lies the reluctance many civic leaders and elected officials feel about taking on the nation's largest polluter: The armed forces are so integral to Southern economies that crossing the Pentagon seems just too dangerous. With a new round of base closures slated for 2005, local communities are scrambling to stay in the Defense Department's good graces.

Take, for example, the Navy's efforts to build a landing field in eastern North Carolina to train F/A-18 Super Hornet squadrons. Local residents overwhelmingly oppose the project, which threatens the area's rich bird life and presents toxic threats such as spilled jet fuel. In response this year, some lawmakers pushed for a special session of the North Carolina Legislature, where they hoped to give the state a bit more power over military land-use decisions. But pressure from politicians representing military towns killed the idea.

"All the special session would have done is to stick a finger in the Department of Defense's eyes," says Sen. Tony Rand, a Democrat from Fayetteville, N.C., home of the Army's Fort Bragg. "The military is so important to eastern North Carolina -- it's about all we've got left down there. In 1991, when the 82nd Airborne went to the desert for the first Iraqi war, I had a client in Fayetteville who had 500 vacant apartments. We had a number of restaurants fail. If the military presence wasn't here, you'd take several billions out of the local economy, and it would be just devastating."

An unseen enemy

These days, Darlene and Elijah Robinson cope the best they can with their reduced health, the loss of their grandson, and their displacement from home. Since they moved out of the South Carolina patio house, some of their symptoms have subsided. But both still have some breathing problems, and the burning sensation remains. Sometimes, when Elijah tries to sleep, "it feels like his lungs are going to drown him," his wife says.

"Right now, we have a makeshift life," she says. They have moved to an apartment, but their favorite keepsakes remain in their old home, unmovable for fear of additional contamination. "Everything that has to do with our lives is in that house: all our photographs, all our heirlooms," she says. "We were attacked by an unseen enemy, and everything we had was taken from us."

Ensminger, the retired Marine who lost his daughter to leukemia, has turned his grief into political action. Not only has he been trying to get to the bottom of the Camp Lejeune drinking water scandal, but he's also been fighting the Pentagon's efforts to win exemptions from environmental laws. Speaking before a congressional panel last year, he told the story of Janey's death, then implored lawmakers not to give the Department of Defense a "license to kill" its soldiers and their families.

Ensminger voted for President Bush in 2000, and he's still a registered Republican. But he's far more critical of his government than he was four years ago, and far less loyal to the military he served for almost a quarter-century.

"There is something fundamentally wrong in our government," he says, "when the agency that was created to protect our country and our way of life is requesting immunities that would allow them to kill the very people they were created to protect -- and to get away with it."

Barry Yeoman is a freelance writer in Durham, N.C. He can be reached at His website is

  • Pin It


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Latest in Cover Story


Search Events

Recent Comments

© 2014 Creative Loafing Atlanta
Powered by Foundation