Washington, DC – The public health and environmental consequences from bombs, chemical and biological weapons buried on abandoned and converted defense sites in the US are much larger than previously reported. According to EPA documents released today by PEER, a cumulative area larger than the State of Florida is contaminated. Shoddy military cleanups in violation of regulatory standards, poor or nonexistent records and the reluctance of Pentagon authorities to take responsibility for problems all serve to compound the risks.
According to one document, a staff briefing paper for recently confirmed EPA enforcement director John Suarez, cleanup of the old military ranges “has the potential to be the largest environmental cleanup program ever to be implemented in the United States”:
There are an estimated 16,000 military ranges containing unexploded ordnance contaminating up to 40 million acres of land, an area larger than Florida;
Many of these sites have already been converted to civilian uses; and
Defense Department cleanups violate both civilian and Pentagon regulations and are plagued by “ill-advised short cuts to limit costs.”
An EPA survey of closed or transferred ranges reveals:
More than half of the surveyed sites “indicated that chemical or biological weapons were found or suspected on their ranges.”
Despite conversion of many sites to housing, parks or other civilian uses, nearly half of the sites lack fencing, warning signs or other “institutional controls” to protect the public from unexploded munitions. EPA staff noted “38 public encounters” with grenades, mortars, shells and other buried weapons.
The military services commonly use open burning and open detonation “to rid ranges of both used and unused munitions” but the services obtained proper environmental permits only one-third of the time.
“The true magnitude of this unfolding ecological disaster is masked by the Pentagon’s unwillingness to complete a reliable inventory or adopt credible cleanup rules,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization opposed this year’s attempt by the Pentagon to exempt itself from an array of hazardous waste and anti-pollution laws.”After inflicting the largest ecological cleanup bill in history on the American taxpayer, characteristically, no one at the Pentagon will stand up and take responsibility for this mess.”
Damning as these findings are, EPA removed even more scathing conclusions under pressure from the Pentagon, which funded the survey and also finances EPA’s Federal Facilities Restoration and Reuse Office (putting EPA in the position of having to decide whether to prosecute its funder).Removed from the survey are the following:
“The ranges in this survey pose potentially significant threats to human health and the environment. Although most ranges are in rural or remote areas or near small towns, there are residences within close proximity to most of the ranges. In addition, 33 percent are on or near surface water, wetlands or floodplains, thus potentially exposing ecological receptors and making cleanup more difficult.”
“DoD often does not adhere to the requirements of applicable statutes or regulations [citations omitted].DoD’s use of modified or inconsistent interpretations of the applicable statute or regulation results in many UXO [unexploded ordnance]-contaminated areas not being investigated or, when discovered, not being addressed…”
“EPA, other regulators, and all non-DoD parties have strong concerns regarding CTT [closed, transferred or transferring] ranges where significant amounts of UXO remain and the property is already being used for a wide variety of land uses (other than a military range). The expected future use of over half the ranges in this survey is residential.”
In addition, EPA also found weapons contamination in one-fifth of surveyed ranges at off-range locations. One excised portion of the EPA survey states, “Anecdotal evidence suggests DoD is often reluctant to investigate off-range areas.”
The final EPA survey, “Used or Fired Munitions and Unexploded Ordnance at Closed, Transferred and Transferring Military Ranges ” (September 2000)