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Cleaning up the federal polluters: tax-supported toxic waste.

Because of loopholes in Federal laws, hazardous wastes produced by the military and by defense contractors have become a toxic time bomb, threatening our highways, homes and drinking water.

One explosion has already occurred. Last winter, 562 truckloads of hazardous wastes were shipped from the Army's arsenal in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to a privately owned waste dump south of Lake Charles, Louisiana, 350 miles away. On February 28, a drum containing spent and rejected smoke bombs and canisters of a dye-and-smoke mix containing hexachloroethane, granular aluminum and potassium chlorate, exploded at the dump, igniting flammable liquids stored in a nearby pit. A toxic fire raged for forty-five minutes. Although the local volunteer fire department was called, its members refused to enter the site when company officials could not identify the chemicals that were burning.

An inspection conducted by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality revealed that Pine Bluff Arsenal personnel had not properly completed the manifest listing the drums' contents. Nor had they removed the detonating devices of seven smoke bombs. Worst of all, they had packed the drums without material to absorb free liquids. Rick Hunter, the Army's inspector, theorized that due to the empty space within the drum and the lack of filler material, a spark was formed. Luckily, the spark ignited at the waste facility, where experienced workers in full protective clothing could contain the fire, rather than en route through Alexandria, one of Louisiana's largest cities.

Because of the Reagan Administration's military buildup, defense contractors are becoming major sources of hazardous wastes. Grumman Aerospace on Long Island generated more than 215,000 tons of hazardous wastes during 1982: that amounts to 85 percentof the hazardous wastes produced in Nassau County and almost one-quarter of all wastes produced in New York State that year. Most of those wastes, including 189 tons of flammable material, 101 tons of polychlorinated biphenysl (PCBs), 3,176 tons of corrosive wastes and more than 210,000 tons of toxic chromium were probably shipped through New York City. Let's hope Grumman packs its drums better than the Army does.

Heavy metals like chromium are typical of wastes generated by the defense industry. Like radioactive wastes, the poisoning they cause can result in mutations, cancer and birth defects. Unlike radioactive wastes, which decay over thousands of years, heavy metals remain toxic forever. Grumman sends most of its toxic chromium wastes to an out-of-state landfill. The rest are sent to a treatment facility. That course of action is preferable to burial, but recycling would be even better. That, however, is a more expensive process.

Mercury, another toxic heavy metal, was used during the 1950s in producing components for thermonuclear warheads. Over the years, illegal discharges and unreported spills of up 2.4 million pounds of mercury occurred at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a facility now owned by the U.S. Department of Energy. Federal and state environmental officials did not learn of those events until May 1983, when the Department of Energy declassified the information after a staff scientist reported the contamination and complained that nothing was being done about it. The State of Tennessee contends that some of the discharges reached levels 3,000 times higher than the legal limit. Nearly 500,000 pounds of the toxic metal had been discharged directly into East Fork Poplar Creek. Union Carbide Corporation operated the facility when that contamination took place and continued to make the components until this year, when Martin Marietta took over the contract. A Department of Energy report contends that fish contaminated by the mercury pose little threat to people in the area because Oak Ridge is a "relatively affluent city for East Tennessee, populated by scientists and engineers who have other life pursuits than habitual sports fishing." Yet barely two miles downstream from Y-12, the 1,5000 black residents of Scarboro fish and swim in the creek.

Less than one year after the Department of Energy revealed information about the illegal discharges, the State of Tenessee and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the Federal government to force Y-12 to comply with regulations concerning hazardous wastes. They won the suit.

Other examples of Federal pollution abound. As many as 4,000 individual military dumps, including sites at one hundred overseas bases, contain toxic wastes that are environmentally threatening. In September the U.S. Navy submarine base in Groton, Connecticut, accidentally spilled thirty gallons of nearly pure PCBs, and an unknown concentration of PCBs in 400 gallons of water and oil, into the Thames River there and has not yet cleaned it up. An Air Force missile plant in Tucson, Arizona, routinely dumped thousands of tons of heavy metals, toxic solvents and paint residues into unlined pits, threatening Tucson's sole source of drinking water. In 1981 soil samples showed amounts of trichloroethylene, a degreasing agent, at a level 2,000 times higher than that cnsidered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Pentagon and the E.P.A. continue to haggle over what remedial action should be taken.

The enforcement of standards for managing hazardous wastes in the defense industry is compromised by considerations of national security. On that ground, E.P.A. inspectors can be barred from Federal weapons facilities, and information about management procedures and even potential contamination can be withheld from the public. Gene Lucero, an E.P.A. enforcement official, admits that the Pentagon determines cleanup standards, withholds, information and works "according to its own internal time frame."

The E.P.A. has recently added more than thirty military facilities to its proposed list of toxic waste sites requiring priority cleanup. Previously, the list did not name Defense Department sites, although it did include three plants owned by military contractors: Teledyne's Wah Chang plant in Albany, Oregon; Martin Marietta's Sodyeco plant in Charlotte, North Carolina; and Monsanto Corporation's plant in Augusta, Georgia.

The millions of dollars for the cleanup of the government-owned sites will probably come from the Pentagon's budget rather than the E.P.A.'s Superfund, which was established in 1980 to pay for cleaning up abandoned dump sites. Either way the public pays, though if the Pentagon does the job, the money will come directly out of income taxes, whereas the Superfund is financed targely by a special tax on corporations. The Defense Department decided long ago that it would assume financial liability for mistakes by corporate operators of government-owned plants and machinery.

Last year the Pentagon estimated 450 installations could be cleaned up by 1993 for $500 million. Now it concedes that action will not even begin at the sites until 2003 and that the bill will come to billions of dollars. New estimates for decontaminating just one site, the Army's Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, where nerve gas, pesticides and munitions were produced during World War II, total $357 million, though that amount could increase 40 percent by the time the project is completed.

Stepped-up military production has increased the costs and risks associated with waste management at Federal and private facilities. In the end, we will have to pay the price for it, either in dollars or in sickness and death. Ultimately, the problem is not technical or economic but political and moral.
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Author:Goldman, Benjamin A.
Publication:The Nation
Date:Nov 24, 1984
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