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Deadly dependence 

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

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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."

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