Defunct Defense Sites Littered With Problems

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, November 26, 2002 (ENS) - Dozens of sites, adding up to an area larger than the state of Florida, are contaminated by bombs, chemical and biological weapons buried on abandoned and converted defense sites, show documents from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The documents, including unpublished material excised from later versions, were released Monday by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

The nonprofit group says that the EPA documents show that shoddy military cleanups in violation of regulatory standards, poor or nonexistent records and the reluctance of Pentagon authorities to take responsibility for these problems, all serve to compound the risks of defunct military sites.


Some of the munitions retrieved by the Army Corps from the Badlands Bombing Range in South Dakota. (Photo by Robert Etzel. Four photos courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals, warns that the public health and environmental consequences from weapons buried on former defense sites in the U.S. are much larger than has been reported.

"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," said PEER executive director Jeff Ruch.

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."

The EPA documents indicate that there are an estimated 16,000 military ranges containing unexploded ordnance contaminating up to 40 million acres of land. Many of these sites have already been converted to civilian uses, but the cleanups performed by the Defense Department violate both civilian and Pentagon regulations and are plagued by "ill advised short cuts to limit costs," the EPA's briefing paper shows.

"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," Ruch charged.

Plum Brook

Groundwater investigations are still underway at the Plum Brook Ordnance Works in Ohio, which produced TNT, DNT and nitric and sulfuric acids during World War II.
Ruch's organization was among a host of environmental and public interest groups that opposed efforts by the Bush administration and the Pentagon to win exemptions for military activities and bases from an array of hazardous waste and anti-pollution laws. While the final version of the 2003 Defense Authorization bill included a provision to exempt the military from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Congress declined to allow exemptions from other major environmental regulations, including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

The PEER report offers new ammunition to those who argue that the military should be required to do more, not less, to ensure that the sites they use are left safe for the environment and the public. For example, among the common methods used by the military services "to rid ranges of both used and unused munitions" are open burning and open detonation. Yet the services obtained proper environmental permits for these activities only one-third of the time, the EPA documents show.

Many former military sites have been converted into housing, parks or other civilian uses, but almost half of the sites lack fencing, warning signs or other "institutional controls" to protect the public from unexploded munitions. Staff at the EPA recorded "38 public encounters" with grenades, mortars, shells and other buried weapons.

And an EPA survey of closed or transferred military ranges found that more than half of the surveyed sites "indicated that chemical or biological weapons were found or suspected on their ranges."

Under pressure from the Pentagon, PEER argues, the EPA removed even more damning conclusions from its final report, "Used or Fired Munitions and Unexploded Ordnance at Closed, Transferred and Transferring Military Ranges," released in September 2000. The Department of Defense (DoD) funded the survey and also finances the EPA's Federal Facilities Restoration and Reuse Office - putting the EPA in the position of sometimes having to decide whether to prosecute its funder.

Dolly Sods

A building in the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in West Virginia, which was used as a bombing range during World War II
Removed from the survey were the following passages:

Power House

This building in Point Pleasant, West Virginia was used to manufacture TNT during World War II.
The 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."

Senator Jon Corzine, a New Jersey Democrat, said the PEER report highlights the need for Congressional action regarding the cleanup of hazardous materials on military ranges around the country. Corzine called on the incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, to schedule hearings next year on the matter.

"It is government's responsibility to examine the status of these cleanups and to ensure that they proceed quickly and safely," said Corzine. "There is no excuse for taking shortcuts when it comes to protecting the health and safety of Americans from hazardous environmental risks."

PEER has posted the unpublished EPA draft report at: