A national coalition of 90 affected communities and organizations have joined together to support federal legislation that will require the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy to comply with laws designed to protect human health and the environment.
A joint letter to the White House, organized by Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger, expresses support for H.R. 672 – a bill that was introduced earlier this year by Congressman Bob Filner (D-CA). Also known as the “Military Environmental Responsibility Act,” the bill seeks to eliminate military waivers to key environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The Department of Defense is responsible for more than 31,000 cleanup sites on more than 4,600 active and former defense properties. About one in 10 Americans – nearly 29 million – live within 10 miles of a military site that is listed as a national priority for hazardous waste cleanup under the federal Superfund program.
The proposed law would also apply to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) which today has responsibility for nuclear cleanup activities at 21 sites covering more than two million acres in 13 states and which will require billions of dollars a year for several more decades.
In the March 23 letter the groups write: “Unregulated military projects have placed countless communities, workers, soldiers, and families at increased risk for cancer and other deadly disease from exposure to military toxins – the hidden casualties here at home. Even as we write this letter, contamination caused by munitions production, testing, and disposal is poisoning our drinking water wells, contaminating the air we breathe, destroying our lakes, rivers, and fisheries, and polluting our soils and farmlands.”
“It is important to insist that the Military Environmental Responsibility Act be pushed to make a clear statement that no one should be above the law,” said Evelyn Yates, who lives near Arkansas’ Pine Bluff Arsenal – one of six Army installations in the United States that currently stores chemical weapons. “In my community, that is destroying chemical weapons with open incineration no one seems to be paying attention but, like my sweet departed mother use to say, it will all come out in the wash. Will the wash day be five years down the road when we are all guessing the cause of all the new local diseases?”
“Everyone has to be accountable when they do wrong. The military should be accountable when thousands of people have been exposed to toxins,” said Doris Bradshaw, director of Defense Depot Memphis Tennessee Concerned Citizens Committee and neighbor of a 642-acre Army site where contamination from mustard and other chemical agents has been found. “The new law will make the government accountable for health issues that have been going on for years.”
Among those exposed to toxins at former military sites are civilian workers. In the windowless basement of Philadelphia’s now-closed Defense Personnel Supply, workers making clothing for the Army say that they were exposed to fumes, insecticides and other environmental hazards.
“The basement area had no ventilation or windows,” said Mable Mallard, a seamstress who worked at the factory for 10 years, until it closed in 1994. “People were working for $5 an hour in unhealthy and unsafe conditions – it was a sweatshop.”
“The fox has been watching the hen house,” said Gilbert Sanchez, the director of Tribal Environmental Watch Alliance and a community leader at the Pueblo of San Ildefonso in New Mexico. “It is time to address the impacts of DOE facilities like the Los Alamos National Laboratory that are and have been done for the military use of nuclear weapons, depleted uranium, waste storage on site, and poor oversight by the Agency.”
Among the cosponsors of the bill is Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) whose district includes the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant. Rural neighbors of the Badger plant organized Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger (CSWAB) in 1990 when groundwater contamination from the military base was detected in nearby drinking water wells. Families there were unknowingly exposed to carcinogenic solvents in their well water for more than 15 years.