How Toxic Waste Sites Run by the Pentagon Are Poisoning Americans
July 23, 2017
A detailed new report by ProPublica reveals how the US military continues to engage in unsafe methods to destroy hazardous waste at sites across the country, and how this practice is harming nearby communities. The story, which is "the first in a series examining the Pentagon's oversight of thousands of toxic sites on American soil," exposes how "outdoor burning and detonation is still the military's leading method for dealing with munitions and the associated hazardous waste."
How Toxic Waste Sites Run by the Pentagon Are Poisoning Americans
(July 20, 2017) -- A detailed new report by ProPublica reveals how the US military continues to engage in unsafe methods to destroy hazardous waste at sites across the country, and how this practice is harming nearby communities.
The story, which is "the first in a series examining the Pentagon's oversight of thousands of toxic sites on American soil," exposes how "outdoor burning and detonation is still the military's leading method for dealing with munitions and the associated hazardous waste."
Abrahm Lustgarten writes:
More than three decades ago, Congress banned American industries and localities from disposing of hazardous waste in these sorts of "open burns," concluding that such uncontrolled processes created potentially unacceptable health and environmental hazards.
Companies that had openly burned waste for generations were required to install incinerators with smokestacks and filters and to adhere to strict limits on what was released into the air. Lawmakers granted the Pentagon and its contractors a temporary reprieve from those rules to give engineers time to address the unique aspects of destroying explosive military waste.
That exemption has remained in place ever since, even as other Western countries have figured out how to destroy aging armaments without toxic emissions. While American officials are mired in a bitter debate about how much pollution from open burns is safe, those countries have pioneered new approaches. Germany, for example, destroyed hundreds of millions of pounds of aging weapons from the Cold War without relying on open burns to do it.
In the United States, outdoor burning and detonation is still the military's leading method for dealing with munitions and the associated hazardous waste. It has remained so despite a US Senate resolution a quarter of a century ago that ordered the Department of Defense to halt the practice "as soon as possible." It has continued in the face of a growing consensus among Pentagon officials and scientists that similar burn pits at US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan sickened soldiers.
Federal records identify nearly 200 sites that have been or are still being used to open-burn hazardous explosives across the country. Some blow up aging stockpile bombs in open fields. Others burn bullets, weapons parts and [. . .] raw explosives in bonfire-like piles.
The facilities operate under special government permits that are supposed to keep the process safe, limiting the release of toxins to levels well below what the government thinks can make people sick. Yet officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, which governs the process under federal law, acknowledge that the permits provide scant protection.
ProPublica obtained internal EPA documents and interviewed numerous officials for this investigative report. Lustgarten writes that while the Pentagon defends its practices as "legal" and "safe," the "EPA's system for determining how much chemical burning is safe amounts to little more than educated guesses."
"ProPublica reviewed records for the 51 active burn sites and more than 145 others the Pentagon, its contractors, and other private companies operated in the past, and found they had violated their hazardous waste handling permits thousands of times over the past 37 years, often for improperly storing and disposing of toxic material, and sometimes for exceeding pollution thresholds," Lustgarten reports. "Much of the information gathered has never before been released to the public, leaving the full extent of military-related pollution a secret."
Read the full report here, and take a look at corresponding interactive maps here.
Toxic Fires: Across the Country, Military Sites
Burn Hazardous Waste Into Open Air
Hilary Fung, Abrahm Lustgarten and Lena Groeger / ProPublica
(July 20, 2017) -- Virtually every day, the Department of Defense and its contractors burn and detonate unused munitions and raw explosives in the open air with no environmental emissions controls, often releasing toxins near water sources and schools. The facilities operate under legal permits, but their potentially harmful effects for human health aren’t well researched, and EPA records obtained by ProPublica show that these sites have violated their hazardous waste permits thousands of times. Related story.
At Least 61 Sites Active Today
Most active sites, which currently burn or detonate waste into open air, are run by the military and its contractors, according to the EPA and the Pentagon. The Radford Army Ammunition Plant in Virginia, for example, supplies explosives for almost every American bullet fired overseas and is allowed to burn up to 2.9 million pounds of waste every year.
The EPA has found Radford in violation of its hazardous waste permits at least 50 times in the past 37 years, for reasons such as mishandling or mischaracterizing its explosive waste, violating standards for its incinerators and improperly monitoring groundwater.
Many Sites Closed or Abandoned,
But Still Potentially Harmful
Many of these open-burn sites have been closed or converted to other uses, but many were not properly cleaned. Fort Wainwright in Alaska, for example, accumulated at least 63 violations and is facing corrective action for improper cleaning and closure, according to the EPA.
Some of the above sites are also Superfund sites, designating them as among the nation’s most environmentally contaminated sites with the highest cleanup priorities. Based on EPA data, ProPublica has identified at least 35 burn sites with Superfund status, and half of those sites are still active. The total number of Superfund sites may be as high as 54, according to sources in the EPA.
Colfax, Louisiana: See What Gets Burned
One Year, One Facility, 1.7 Million Pounds
of Hazardous Waste Burned in Open Air
Lylla Younes and Abrahm Lustgarten / ProPublica
(July 21, 2017) -- Filings from one commercially licensed facility reveal an example of what gets burned nationwide. See the 1.7 million pounds of hazardous waste burned in Colfax in 2015.
At least 61 active burn and denotation sites currently operate in the US Most are run directly by the Department of Defense or its contractors, and do not publicly report what they burn. ProPublica obtained the delivery manifests for the only burn site that is commercially licensed and allowed to accept explosives from off-site, run by a company called Clean Harbors in Colfax, Louisiana.
In 2015, the site received more than 1.7 million pounds of hazardous explosives waste from across the country -- from the US military as well as from commercial users like Disney, which sends unexploded fireworks to the facility to be destroyed. Here’s what the facility burned or detonated that year. Related story.
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