For years, notorious environmental disregard at U.S. military bases has resulted in poisoned drinking water and placed military personnel and their families at serious health risks because of exposure to toxins.
A 2016 report in the Stanford Environmental Law Journal warned, “There is an epidemic of toxic contamination at U.S. military bases.” The widespread chemical contamination of soil, groundwater and nearby lakes and streams throughout the country poses threats to the health and well-being of service members, their families, and nearby civilian communities.
Remarkably, pollution at military bases is so widespread that more than two-thirds of the nearly 900 highly contaminated federal Superfund sites are affiliated with the military, states the report written by John W. Hamilton, a Stanford law student.
The problem is even more severe overseas, where the U.S. military regularly used open-air burn pits at many operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of waste including batteries, solvents and electronics.
Among the worst domestic cases highlighted in the 249-page report: Camp LeJeune, N.C., the largest Marine Corps installation on the East Coast and home to about 170,000 active duty and civilian employees and retirees. The drinking water on the 240-square mile base has been poisoned for decades by “a toxic cocktail of industrial solvents, dry-cleaning chemicals and gasoline.”
Also, the Naval Air Station Fallon in western Nevada, home to 5,000 active duty and civilian employees and a premier combat flight training center, has the dubious distinction of having been investigated as a “cancer cluster” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sixteen children in the city were diagnosed with leukemia between 1997 and 2002, an incident rate that was far above the national average.
The precise cause of the leukemia outbreak has yet to be determined. However, the Fallon community has long been exposed to multiple sources of toxins, such as naturally occurring arsenic in the ground water, tungsten in the air and the water, and benzene from an oil pipeline that supplies the base’s jet fuel.
Finally, the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, Calif., was a hub of military aviation activity until it was closed in 1999. After decades of high-tempo flight activity, the carcinogenic industrial solvent widely used on the base to clean jet engines between sorties washed onto the soil and into the groundwater supply. The base was listed as a Superfund site in 1990.
Now comes a controversy in northeastern Michigan where a state lawmaker is clashing with the U.S. Air Force over responsibility for polluted drinking water near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base near Oscoda.
Last year, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services discovered perfluorinated chemical contamination in drinking water wells near the former base that threatened a nearby lake and creeks. PFCs are a group of chemicals used in fire-fighting foams, some nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing and manufacturing.
State officials’ concerns about pollution in the area date back to 2012, when the health department issued a “do not eat” advisory for all fish caught near Wurtsmith Air Force Base. Laboratory analysis of the fish showed levels of PFCs that were unsafe for human consumption.
In January, a new state law took effect saying that the military must supply safe drinking water to residents of Oscoda whose wells were polluted with toxic chemicals from Wurtsmith.
The law amended Michigan’s Safe Drinking Water Act to require either the federal government or the state to provide an “alternative water supply” to any property owner with a polluted well if state health officials issue a related drinking water advisory and the government was the source of the pollution.
Republican state Sen. Jim Stamas of Midland said he sponsored the legislation after military officials notified him last year that the Air Force would supply an alternative water supply to affected properties if the Michigan legislature passed a law requiring that, according to the Associated Press.
But now the Air Force is pushing back against the new law, asserting that the military won’t provide clean water to the area because the law is “discriminatory.”
"The Michigan law does discriminate as it only applies to federal and state agencies, not to all entities and persons," Air Force spokesman Mark Kinkade said.
Kinkade says the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which created the Superfund program, only compels the U.S. government to comply with state law if it's not discriminatory.
A furious Stamas replied that he was “extremely disappointed in the U.S. Air Force” for not living up to its word and its responsibilities. He said that the federal government “needs to be held accountable” for what it did in polluting the base.
The Republican lawmaker said he would ask state Attorney General Bill Schuette to pursue legal action against the military to enforce the new law.
Schuette is no stranger to water contamination controversies. He has led the criminal and civil investigation of the lead poisoning of Flint’s drinking water supply. So far, 13 former state and local officials face criminal counts stemming from Schuette’s investigation.
The Stanford Environmental Law Journal analysis says suing the U.S. military could be far more challenging than going after state and local officials. The federal Tort Claim Law and a slew of legal precedents make it difficult for state or local governments or veterans and their families impacted by chemical pollution from going after the military.