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U.S. Army Huey helicopter spraying Agent Orange over Vietnamese agricultural land. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Archive)

Confronting Our Toxic Legacy

Robert C. Koehler

Maybe if we declared “war” on poison water, we’d find a way to invest money in its “defeat.”

David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, writing at Tom Dispatch this week about what they called “The United States of Flint,” make this point: “The price tag for replacing the lead pipes that contaminated its drinking water, thanks to the corrosive toxins found in the Flint River, is now estimated at up to $1.5 billion. No one knows where that money will come from or when it will arrive. In the meantime, the cost to the children of Flint has been and will be incalculable.”

I sit with these words: “No one knows where the money will come from.”

In the president’s latest budget proposal, $7.5 billion is earmarked to “fight ISIS,” an absurd non-threat to the nation’s survival, but no matter. We’re engaged in endless war with whoever the latest enemy happens to be and this war is endlessly funded, no questions asked. Mostly we’re engaged in war preparation, of course (and the containment of the consequences of past wars — at least the ones that can’t be ignored). As usual, the Pentagon and other war-engaged institutions will consume well over half the nation’s discretionary spending, including a $59 billion “slush fund that permits the Pentagon to break through Congress’ legislated budget caps,” according to the National Priorities Project.

But the children (and adults) of Flint remain vulnerable to contaminated water and no one knows where the money will come from to replace its decrepit water pipes, which started leaching lead into the water supply after officials used chlorine to deal with the biological contaminants that invaded the city’s water after an austerity decision was made to draw water from the heavily polluted Flint River.

And Flint just happens to be the place drawing media attention right now. Millions of people across the country and around the world remain vulnerable to our legacy of industrial — and military — pollution.

And mostly they’re people of color, suffering from what is appropriately called environmental racism: “the fact that sewage treatment plants, municipal landfills and illegal dumps, garbage transfer stations, incinerators, smelters and other hazardous waste sites inevitably are sited in the backyard of the poor,” as David J. Krajicek wrote recently at AlterNet, citing the work of Dr. Robert D. Bullard.

Tick, tick, tick. This is the threat we face: toxic soil, water and air, our legacy of two centuries of industrial ignorance and recklessness, combined with something even worse: militarism and the arrogance of empire. The U.S. military is the largest and worst polluter on Planet Earth, leaving radioactive dust and an all sorts of other toxins in the wake of its disastrous adventures, including unexploded land mines and cluster bombs, and, for good measure, severe desertification across Iraq.

Its unregulated pollution has spread cancer, birth defects, neurological diseases and other horrific illnesses among friend and foe alike. U.S. nuclear testing has devastated both the American Southwest and the Marshall Islands of the South Pacific, and its 1,300 abandoned uranium mines continue to cause health problems for the Navajo people of Arizona and New Mexico.

Toxic burn pits, depleted uranium, Agent Orange, canisters of mustard gas dumped in the ocean — this is the “greatness” America’s military apologists tend not to talk about. Combine this with the legacy of the private industrial sector and its abandoned rust-belt cities and what we have is a nation in panic, gasping for breath.

“In truth,” Rosner and Markowitz write, “the United States has scores of ‘Flints’ awaiting their moments. Think of them as ticking toxic time bombs — just an austerity scheme or some official’s poor decision away from a public health disaster. Given this, it’s remarkable, even in the wake of Flint, how little attention or publicity such threats receive. Not surprisingly, then, there seems to be virtually no political will to ensure that future generations of children will not suffer the same fate as those in Flint.”

Certainly part of this lack of political will is racism — one more monstrous manifestation of it. Another part is no doubt the ongoing denial of our toxic legacy, creating a situation in which polluted regions do not exist — at least in the consciousness of politicians, military bureaucrats and corporate elitists — until the effects are so undeniable, as they are in Flint, that they have to be addressed in some minimal, face-saving way.

Meanwhile, we waste more than half our annual national budget developing weapons, preparing for and waging useless wars and, in the process, creating not just future enemies but environmental hell for millions of people.

This is “the way things are” but I don’t think it’s the way most people want them to be. How on earth do we find the “political will” to change — indeed, reverse — this situation?

The PR ploy of militarism is that it’s how we as a nation think and act in a big way. We uproot terrorists. We topple dictators. We bring democracy to Iraq. As a metaphor, “war” is our way of coping with drugs and cancer and crime. We confront evil and, in the process, become the good guys. We budget more than half a trillion dollars a year to maintain this illusion of ourselves.

What if we actually invested a serious portion of our budget in a cause that mattered? I don’t really believe we should pretend to go to war against toxic water. War is a limited — in my view, stupid — concept. We lose every war we fight. War always creates unintended consequences of monstrous proportions, which dwarf its strategic aims. But thinking big and standing up to a profound threat makes sense and has political cred.

What if we decided to rescue the children of Flint — indeed, rescue every child in this country — from the dangers of lead poison and industrial pollution and poverty? What if we stared directly at the ticking time bomb of climate change and environmental collapse and regrouped as a nation around a determination not to let this happen?

Instead of thoughtlessly budgeting our own demise, what if we found the political will to reprioritize the national budget and reclaim the future?

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at

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