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The Threat at Home: Confronting the Toxic Legacy of the U.S. Military.

When the Iron Curtain was torn away, a curtain of secrecy was parted in the United States as well-exposing the accumulated toxic and radioactive waste that remains after four decades of obsessive weapons production. Containing this mess - as these three books suggest - may take longer than overcoming Communism. All three take a hard look at the problems that lie ahead, both in cleaning tip and in safeguarding against future abuses of public health and the environment by the military.

Seth Shulman's The Threat at Home takes the reader on the road, crisscrossing the country to visit countless contaminated, fenced-off areas such as Indiana's Jefferson Proving Ground, Nebraska's Cornhusker Ammunition Plant, and California's McClellan Air Force Base. He describes in gripping detail the containment effort at Colorado's Rocky Mountain Arsenal, often called "the Earth's most toxic square mile":

The materials in Basin F were so highly toxic that the workers wore two layers of impermeable suits; filtering gas masks were not sufficient, so they breathed oxygen from scuba tanks. After each shift, the entire outside layer of the workers' suits had to be disposed of in a licensed hazardous waste facility."

Shulman's personal impressions, together with information sifted from government and watchdog agency documents, and interviews with military officers, local elected officials, and residents, provide a chilling account of massive pollution perpetrated in the name of national security. Though fragmented disclosures about the U.S. military's toxic waste stream appeared in the mainstream media from time to time, The Threat at. Home is the first book to cover the subject comprehensively. The world, Shulman stresses, still has much to learn about toxic waste.

By and large, the defense establishment continues to resist congressional and grass-roots attempts to part the veil of secrecy still further. At least until recently, the White House and the Justice Department have thwarted all efforts by the states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce Pentagon compliance with environmental laws.

Recounting the struggles of local communities, Shulman gives voice to the anger and frustration of citizens who for years have been unknowingly exposed to air and water pollution by the military. "If any theme emerges throughout," he concludes, "it is the importance of public accountability and local oversight of the military's environmental cleanup and environmental practice."

In a few instances, such as at McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, California, a more "enlightened" attitude toward the environment seems to have taken hold - but only after years of confrontation with the local community. And Shulman puts the military's accomplishments to date in sobering perspective. Against the enormous scale of the Pentagon's operations, its cleanup effort so far is but a drop in the bucket. "Cleanup" too often is no more than a euphemism. At Aberdeen Proving Ground, northeast of Baltimore, Maryland, for example, the author observes that "at some of the installation's toxic sites, even the use of remote-controlled cleanup technologies has been judged impossible because of the dangerous levels of toxic material the excavations might release into the air."

The Threat at Home offers a wealth of information without leaving outraged or frustrated readers bewildered about what to do next. It is a practical book - a call to action. A three-part appendix gives advice on how to investigate a military base's environmental practices. It furnishes addresses of relevant government offices and national grass-roots groups, and lists those sites that the military itself has identified as contaminated. Finally, it provides useful summaries of pertinent environmental laws.

Oddly, Shulman throws in a chapter on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the highly-polluted centerpiece of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. This short detour to radioactive waste issues detracts more from the book's message than it adds. The problems at Hanford and other nuclear facilities are plentiful enough to be addressed in a separate book - which is precisely what Hidden Dangers sets out to do.

This compilation, made up of chapters written by some of the world's foremost non-governmental experts, does for the military's nuclear mess what Shulman's book does for military toxics. Despite efforts by government watchdogs and advisory boards, inside critics, and outside pressure groups, Hidden Dangers suggests that "in the end, events, not politics, changed operations" in the nuclear complex: "What years of criticism failed to do, the tragic accident at Chernobyl achieved. Finally, safety became the pressing issue."

"The political process failed," as Bennett Ramberg, a senior research associate at UCLA's Center for International and Strategic Affairs, writes in his Hidden Dangers chapter, and that does not bode well.

Although the continuing stream of revelations of safety and environmental violations within the U.S. nuclear weapons complex may make the 1990 book seem out of date, it remains an indispensable primer for those concerned with the social and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons production.

For a more recent perspective on the issues raised in Hidden Dangers, turn to Facing Reality - a collaboration by 15 authors from environmental and grass-roots groups.

Facing Reality's authors bluntly conclude that "whether by inertia, habit, or material interest, the nuclear weapons establishment has proven itself incapable of genuine reform." They therefore call for government agencies other than the Department of Energy to manage the tasks of decontamination and decommissioning.

Just a partial list of what needs to be done to clean up the DOE's mess is daunting: closing, decommissioning, and decontaminating production facilities, dismantling thousands of nuclear warheads, safely storing dangerous radioactive materials, identifying alternative employment for weapons specialists, conducting meaningful health studies of workers and citizens exposed to radiation, and providing compensation for the victims of the nuclear buildup.

While their styles are different (compared with Shulman's graphic narrative, Hidden Dangers and Facing Reality are more technical and academic), all three of these books have a common message: giving military prowess unquestioned priority over safety considerations - and allowing the military to operate free of oversight - may very well do more to hurt citizens than to protect them.
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Author:Renner, Michael
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:987
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Next Article:Hidden Dangers: Environmental Consequences of Preparing for War.
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