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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.
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