Fighting Militarism’s Toxic Legacy

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The Progressive

Fighting Militarism’s Toxic Legacy

One of the most pernicious effects of the U.S. government’s commitment to militarism is a toxic landscape. Current legislation pending in the House, H.R. 672, the Military Environmental Responsibility Act, would force the military to comply with environmental and public safety laws.

“The Department of Defense and Department of Energy have not been held to the same environmental standards as everyone else, and as a result the military continues to be the nation’s biggest polluter,” says Laura Olah, executive director of Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger (CSWAB).

Olah knows a lot about military pollution. She and her neighbors in rural Wisconsin discovered their drinking water wells were polluted with high levels of carcinogenic solvents. Fifty years of weapons manufacturing from the nearby Badger Army Ammunitions Plant had poisoned groundwater, contaminating wells more than a mile away.

This tenacious bunch of citizens has been fighting to get the Department of Defense to clean up after itself for nearly twenty years.

“The bill will help leverage cleanup at the local Army base which should have been completed years ago,” says Olah. “The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and EPA finalized enforceable cleanup orders more than a decade ago but the biggest contaminated site at Badger still hasn’t been touched.”

“Explosives, mercury, solvents, and other toxins that pose a risk to both human health and the wildlife are still found at unsafe levels in surface soil and with the years of delayed cleanup, these contaminants have migrated to surface water and to groundwater, polluting nearby rural drinking water wells,” she adds. “Demanding a complete and comprehensive cleanup will ensure that future generations will not be burdened with the legacy of pollution from Badger.”

CSWAB is part of a national coalition of affected communities and organizations that are supporting this federal legislation. H.R. 672 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.

H.R. 672 would “require the Department of Defense and all other defense-related agencies of the United States to fully comply with Federal and State environmental laws, including certain laws relating to public health and worker safety, that are designed to protect the environment and the health and safety of the public, particularly those persons most vulnerable to the hazards incident to military operations and installations, such as children, members of the Armed Forces, civilian employees, and persons living in the vicinity of military operations and installations.”

On June 5, World Environment Day, CSWAB and other coalition members organized a national call-in day to increase the number of Congressional co-sponsors.

Representative Bob Filner, Democrat of California, introduced the Military Environmental Responsibility Act on January 26, 2009. As for April 18, there were only five co-sponsors:
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ)
Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA)
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA)
Rep. Michael Honda (D-CA)
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI)

This isn’t the first time these groups have worked together on this issue. The coalition sent a letter to the White House, organized by Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger, expressing support for H.R. 672 back in March.

The letter states, “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.”

Olah is optimistic that the legislation will eventually pass.

“Independent reviews by the Government Accountability Office have shown that environmental compliance does NOT interfere with the military’s ability to do its job,” she says. “As taxpayers, we are paying for thousands of military cleanups like the Badger Army Ammunition Plant, which alone may ultimately cost more than $200 million. The bill is not only in the best interest of the health of our soldiers, civilian workers, neighboring communities and families–it’s in the best interest of our pocketbooks.”

Elizabeth DiNovella

Elizabeth DiNovella is Culture Editor of The Progressive. She writes about activism, politics, music, books, and film. She also produces Progressive Radio, a thirty-minute public affairs program hosted by Matthew Rothschild.

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