Military Pollution Makes Me Sick

She was wearing artfully frayed jeans and a snug sweater, sitting quietly in the back of the room while we watched the presentation. And then, the floor was opened to questions, and they spurted in from here and there; it is rare that you get to interact with the officials who are making decisions and we were taking every advantage of it. We trotted around the room to point at maps and ask pointed questions.

I asked whether they were still sticking to the claim that all radioactive materials had been removed when it was clear that some were still present. I tried to frame the question in such a way that I didn’t openly admit to being somewhere I shouldn’t be, which proved a bit challenging. I received an unsatisfactory answer.

And then, she stood up.

“My son has mercury poisoning,” she said. “The Department of Public Health tested him and he has mercury poisoning.”

The facilitator looked uneasy.

She proceeded to talk about how her son played in the yard sometimes, but mostly in the house, and he didn’t dig. She mentioned that her lease mentioned nothing about mercury contamination. That her son gradually got sicker and started experiencing neurological deficits, until the doctor thought mercury poisoning might be the answer, and it was.

“Well, there are a lot of sources of mercury,” the facilitator says.

“I had the Department of Public Health out,” she responds. “They tested the soil. It’s contaminated.”

I can’t remember, after all these years, what the levels were, but they were high. Very high. Too high. And here she was being assured that she could stay in her house while environmental cleanup was performed; her yard would be scooped up and removed and backfilled with clean soil, but she could stay in her house, there were no worries about dust. Meanwhile, I was looking at the maps disclosing toxins found in military testing and noted that the military had somehow managed to avoid finding mercury in her area.

“Yes, but what about my son now,” she said.

Someone muttered that she shouldn’t have moved to a site known to be contaminated.

“It was all I could afford,” she said. “There is nowhere else to live. That’s what the doctor said, that I should move, but I can’t move.”

There is an uneasy silence.

“Why don’t you come talk to me after the meeting,” the facilitator says, and when we leave the meeting an hour later, there she is by the front desk, waiting, while his eyes are averted.

I don’t know what happened to this woman, or her son. If she sued the Navy, if the Navy offered help, if she just kept struggling along and nothing happened. If anyone offered assistance. If she was able to move. I think about her sometimes.

Military pollution in the United States is a big issue. The military is a large entity, and in more freewheeling days, it dumped freely. Not out of malice or even out of laziness, but because this is what everyone did. There wasn’t a lot of thought into how toxic the things being dumped were. Once evidence started to emerge, the military got better about controlled waste, but the cat was already out of the bag; military bases across the United States were heavily contaminated.

As Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) started to accelerate, it meant that the military was leaving numerous highly contaminated sites. Yes, the military did commit to cleaning them up. Meanwhile, neighboring residents were sickened by the pollution left behind. In some cases, like at Treasure Island, bases were opened to civilians and people moved in literally on top of dumping sites; the housing on the Island is situated exactly over the former rubbish tips and materiel storage facilities. Yes, some risks are disclosed when you moved in. But not all.

And even when the risks are disclosed; even when you know that living, for example, across the Bay next to Hunter’s Point will probably make you sick, when you look at the alternatives, you sign the lease and fork over the deposit. Because these places are cheap to live. And “cheap” is comparative; they are still rather expensive and leasing agencies are still making a bundle selling people houses on top of nuclear material, dioxins, PCBs. And the language in those leases is very well structured to make it clear that the leasing company accepts absolutely no liability for anything which might happen.

The military’s cleanup efforts also involve a fundamental problem: Scoop out the contaminated soil. Backfill with clean soil. Dispose of contaminated soil. Remove contaminated materials. Dispose of.

Dispose of? Dispose of where, exactly? Why, in another poor community, somewhere else. A community which has opened a landfill specifically for the purpose of handling toxic waste because they are getting money for it and there’s nothing else they can do and it creates jobs. Sure, the landfill is well secured. Sure, there are safety procedures in place to protect workers. But how secure is it? How good are those protections? When staff are running under the wire to get things done, is there perhaps a push to ignore some “minor” safety issues to avoid running over schedule?

Certainly, some toxic materials can be broken down, and there’s a lot of interesting work being done with bioremediation and phytoremediation. But the cheapest and sometimes the only available option is just moving those materials somewhere else, off the desirable land occupied by the base and into another community.

The military¬† has a lot of money and it’s doubtful that cleanup on this scale could be accomplished¬† by any private company, but the military still needs to watch its dollars and cents. The cheaper option is likely to be chosen unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise. While the military is trying to do something about generations of pollution, it’s also trying to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to provide protection to people living in the United States, to make plans for the future.

Meanwhile, military pollution ruins futures.

What is to be done about this? I don’t have any answers for you, I am afraid. Fundamentally, addressing pollution of this nature is about shuffling the pollution around, moving it somewhere else and passing it down to future generations. But I do think that the military carries the liability for that pollution, and that deaths, injuries, and disabilities caused by military pollution need to be addressed. That little boy with mercury poisoning and his mother should never have to pay for costs of care necessitated by his mercury poisoning, that is for sure.