Military bases disproportionately poison communities of color
Over the past hundred years, the US military has recklessly used and disposed of toxic chemicals in and around its bases. Countless soldiers stationed in contaminated facilities, often accompanied by their families, have been unwittingly exposed to hazardous substances known to cause debilitating and life-threatening illnesses.
North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune infamously illustrates the extent to which toxic contamination has gone unaddressed, affecting unsuspecting service members and their loved ones for more than three decades. Although the base’s problems have been acknowledged by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), many of those affected by the Camp Lejeune contamination have been repeatedly denied disability benefits.
The American army‘s Longstanding problems with toxic contamination
From 1953 to 1987, Camp Lejeune housed nearly one million soldiers and their families. For more than 30 years, they have been exposed to a multitude of volatile organic compounds from oil, degreasers, solvents, radioactive waste and industrial chemicals used and disposed of on or near the base, at concentrations 240 to 3,400 times greater than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Safe Limits.
Some of the most dangerous chemicals affecting the Camp Lejeune grounds include notorious carcinogens like trichlorethylene (TCE), perchlorethylene (PCE), benzene, vinyl chloride, and per/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Prolonged exposure to these toxins leads to their bioaccumulation, which can gradually trigger irreversible conditions and adverse effects, ranging from several types of cancer to sclerosis, organ damage, reproductive disorders, congenital problems and miscarriages. .
Camp Lejeune is just one of the more 700 military bases in the United States where significant toxic contamination was identified. The military’s reliance on aqueous film-forming foam in firefighting training scenarios and for extinguishing difficult fuel fires since the 1970s has enabled PFAS compounds proliferate on its facilities. Florida, for example, is home to 22 such sites, including Patrick Space Force Base, where PFAS readings peaked at 4,338,000 parts per trillion (ppt), nearly 62,000 times higher than the EPA.‘s old health advice standard of 70 ppt. Other contaminated bases include Naval Air Station Jacksonville (1,397,120 ppt), Tyndall Air Force Base (902,460 ppt), Eglin Air Force Base (552,300 ppt), and MacDill Air Force Base (523,710 ppt).
From 2011 to 2019, over 84,000 Camp Lejeune disability claims were filed in the United States, with an overall rejection rate of 80% (over 67,000 claims). A recent VA Inspector General report also notes that 37% of Camp Lejeune disability claims filed from 2017 to 2021 were denied by the department, totaling $13.8 million in unpaid benefits. The challenges faced by veterans are certainly regrettable, but unfortunately they are not new to many communities of color who must deal daily with the insidious effects of pollution.
However, Camp Lejeune is not a singular case – contaminated military bases across the United States represent a real concern for communities of color. In addition to veterans, vulnerable and marginalized communities are also disproportionately affected by toxic pollution, with 44.9% of neighborhoods within 1.8 miles of highly contaminated areas being predominantly communities of color.
Marginalized communities face higher environmental risks
In the 20th century, discriminatory zoning policies underestimated land in neighborhoods where marginalized communities lived. As a result, these areas have become a magnet for industrial facilities, military installations, landfills, ports, traffic lanes and other sources of pollution that have negatively impacted the health of residents. This insidious practice is part of the phenomenon known as “environmental racism”.
With the EPAs most recent review with ongoing cleanup efforts still uncovering traces of toxins at Camp Lejeune, the possibility of toxic runoff from the base remains a real concern for the surrounding community, of which more than a third are people of color and 18% are of the Latinx. After Hurricane Florence battered the base for three days in 2018, a sewage spill spread 84,000 gallons of wastewater from Camp Lejeune to nearby areas. At least Three other similar events have since occurred.
The fight against environmental racism and its perverse and lasting effects has been the subject of increasing political action in recent years. While criminal convictions such as those of the Tonawanda Coke Corporation case ($24.7 million in fines) prosecuted under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act seek to permanently deter industrial polluters, marginalized communities vulnerable to events like the Flint Water Crisis often lack the financial and legal resources to deal with interest groups and influential individuals who prefer to maintain the status quo and protect their bottom line.
Since President Biden took office in 2021, his administration has taken some first steps toward addressing America’s lingering toxic problems. The Honoring our PACT lawsigned in August 2022, provides veterans and their loved ones affected by hazardous substances easier access to disability benefits through the VA, and the Justice40 federal program intends to direct 40% of future environmental investments to vulnerable communities of color who are struggling with historic contamination.
With the adoption of the National Defense Authorization Acttoxic aqueous film-forming foam will be phased out of all U.S. military installations by October 2024, and its use will be banned in training scenarios, while other proposals such as the Clean Water for Military Families Act and Filthy Fifty Act aim to push for more urgent and comprehensive cleanup and repair efforts at severely PFAS-contaminated bases across the country.
Most encouraging of all, the EPA has recently updated its health advisory recommendation for prevalent PFAS contaminants from an old standard of 70 ppt to a considerably lower limit of 0.004 to 0.02 ppt. Although not enforceable, this change represents the first major step the EPA is taking to establish workable levels for PFAS compounds, which it hopes to finalize by 2023. Stricter regulations and standards will allow States to effectively address contamination quickly when detected, and enable disenfranchised frontline communities to seek justice against irresponsible polluters.