Killing Ourselves

Foreign Policy In Focus

Killing Ourselves

July 29, 2001

War is a dirty business. But if Congress approves the Bush Administration’s recent demand that the Department of Defense (DOD) be exempted from environmental laws, Americans are going to discover that peace is just as bad.

“Fundamentally, these proposals are designed to ensure that the Defense Department can execute its military missions while still protecting the environment,” a senior Pentagon official told the Washington Post. That should send a collective chill down the backs of communities across the nation, some of which host thousands of toxic waste dumps and areas so poisoned by radioactivity that they will simply be off limits forever.

The DOD estimates that the U.S. military produces between 400,000 and 500,000 tons of hazardous waste a year, more than the top five chemical companies combined. There are more than 15,000 toxic waste dumps dotted throughout the U.S., which, according to the DOD and Department of Energy (DOE), will require at least $150 billion to bring into compliance with current environmental laws.

The worst of these violations are at former and current weapons production plants. For example:

  • Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where radioactive waste has contaminated local water supplies. The DOE’s solution? Put up “No fishing” signs and tell the locals not to drill wells;
  • Fernald, Ohio,which dumped 167,000 pounds of uranium byproducts in a local river and vented 550,000 pounds of radon and radioactive dust into surrounding communities;
  • Hanford, Washington, where 200 billion gallons of radioactive wastes are stored, some of which are leaching into the Columbia River. Parts of the area will be off-limits for 240,000 years;
  • Rocky Flats, Colorado, which has dumped toxic wastes into local streams and has “misplaced” several pounds of Plutonium.
  • Savannah River, South Carolina, where radioactive wastes have been leaking into soil and local groundwater sources since 1957.
  • New York State, which is facing a $100 million cleanup job from a Depleted Uranium Ammunition (DUA) plant at Schenectady. Four other states have similar problems from DUA wastes.

In fact, if something is radioactive, chances are it’s stamped “Made by the Pentagon.” According to the DOE, 99 percent of all high level radioactive waste, and 75 percent of all low-level waste, is produced by the U.S. military.

Radioactivity is not the only toxic problem the military leaves behind.

We think of Hawaii as paradise, but there are a few places in the Islands where it would be a real good idea not to vacation at. Kahoolawe is a 45-square mile island off the coast of Maui, and its history is one members of Congress ought to keep in mind when they consider waving environmental rules. For 48 years the U.S. Navy pounded the land and waters surrounding Kahoolawe, poisoning it with high explosive residue and live artillery shells. Landing on the island’s beautiful Honokanaia Bay today would be like going in on the first wave at Normandy.

Years of protests—including an illegal occupation of the island—finally forced the military to stop waging war on Kahoolawe’s 1,000 year old temples and endangered plants and animals, and Congress even got the Navy to agree to clean up its mess. But it didn’t, and now the money allotted by Congress is running out. “They (the military services) don’t yet have built-in incentives and disincentives to get the job done,” W. Donald Gray, chief investigator of the Senate Governmental Operations Committee, told Congress, “Guys don’t get promoted from colonel to general for clearing up the environment.”

And if you think the Republican Congress, already under siege from the sour economy, the ballooning deficit and the looming war in Iraq, is about to spring for preserving a bunch of squishy things like plants and animals, please email me. I have a wonderful idea for time-share futures on Kahoolawe.

The White House may give lip service to what it calls a “common sense” balance between military readiness and preserving the environment, but a glance at the budget suggests otherwise. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the DOE budgets took a hit this last time around, and while defense spending is at a record high, there is zip in the DOD budget for the environment.

Dwight Eisenhower once remarked that “The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without.” One could add to that Pogo Possum’s warning:”We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Conn Hallinan

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