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America’s Worst Polluter

The title belongs not to Exxon but to our own federal government

Tom Bailie liked most of George Bush’s State of the Union speech earlier this year – at least up to the part where Bush promised once again to be “the environmental president.”

“I wish I could believe Bush, I really do,” says Bailie, a grain and cattle farmer in the state of Washington. “But how can you believe somebody who’s in charge of a government that’s poisoned our air and water, and then lied and lied about it? I don’t mean a little bit of poison, either. The government might as well have murdered us in our sleep.”

There’s good reason for Bailie’s strong words. His farm sits about a mile downwind and down-river from the eastern boundary of the Hanford nuclear-weapons reservation – a stretch known locally as “Death Mile.” In twenty-seven of the twenty-eight households nearest the Bailie farm, there have been catastrophic health problems associated with radiation: thyroid and bone cancer; stillborn births and physical and mental defects in newborn babies; leukemia and other blood diseases; an outbreak of boil-like sores; and sterility. In Bailie’s family alone, his four grandparents, his parents, two of his sisters, three uncles and an aunt have died from – or are now suffering from – breast, intestinal or colon cancer. The forty-three-year-old Bailie himself had to spend part of his childhood in an iron lung and is now sterile. “After a while most of us figured the bomb factory had to be the cause,” says Bailie.

Over the last five years, Bailie and other residents living near Hanford have obtained federal-government records confirming their long-held suspicions. Starting in the late 1940s, when Hanford became the country’s biggest bomb-manufacturing plant, its smokestacks began spewing radioactive gases, principally plutonium and iodine-131, into the air – in amounts far greater than the leaks produced during the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. And because the citizens around Hanford weren’t warned about the air they were breathing or the milk (from cows feeding on radioactive grasses) they were drinking, the residents were probably hit with a bigger cumulative radioactive wallop than anything Chernobyl residents experienced. “We were zapped,” Bailie says bitterly.

The dirty secret of Hanford, unfortunately, is part of a much larger scandal. The U.S. government, which many Americans assume is faithfully working to safeguard their environment, instead has been the nation’s single worst polluter for the last forty years.

Pollution attributable to federal departments and agencies bombards the air, land and water every day, in every region of the nation, and in a half dozen foreign countries as well. The Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Energy (DOE) do the most damage, but virtually every department and agency under federal control is an environmental offender. Far-flung and diverse, our government’s environmental abuses include mishandling of radioactive and chemical wastes that are leaching into water and soil; use of unnecessary toxic materials that produce not only hazardous wastes but also destructive atmospheric gases and acid rain; neglect of public lands to the extent that some of them have become monstrous waste dumps; and pursuit of policies that have led to the ruin of wilderness areas and the erosion of huge tracts of farmland.

Bob Alvarez, a senior investigator for the U.S. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, has for fifteen years been documenting the government’s sorry environmental record. “What kind of example is it when the government has done more to destroy our environment and risk our health than anyone else?” says Alvarez. “How can the government in good conscience enforce the law against Exxon and the other corporate polluters when it is de facto the biggest outlaw?”

The U.S. government’s environmental lawlessness is substantiated by its own documents. According to an astonishing report issued last year by the General Accounting Office, federal departments and agencies have been collectively violating clean-water laws at twice the rate of private industry. A 1988 survey by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that fifty percent of the facilities under federal jurisdiction were guilty of causing some form of environmental damage. “The federal government is not obeying its own laws,” says Alvarez. “It has adopted the attitude that it is above the law.”

The EPA, first established as a federal agency shortly after the original Earth Day, in 1970, was empowered to impose civil fines and criminal penalties on polluters. Yet while the agency has had some success cracking down on cities, states and private companies for failure to comply with environmental laws, it has been almost completely ineffective when the federal government itself is the culprit. “No question there’s been a double standard,” says Representative Mike Synar, the Oklahoma Democrat who chairs the House Government Operations Committee’s subcommittee on the environment. “The federal government has been inexcusably soft on itself.”

Part of the blame for this goes to Congress, for allowing the defense and energy departments to claim exemptions from environmental laws on the grounds of national security. But more important is an explicit White House policy – set in place by Ronald Reagan and continuing even now under George Bush – to block the EPA from assessing penalties against federal departments and agencies. That policy was part and parcel of Reagan’s drive to deregulate the U.S. government in general and to pass the costs on to future generations. The man who headed the Reagan administration’s deregulatory task force was Vice President Bush. “It’s a terrible irony that during a time of world peace the U.S. government has waged what amounts to a war of pollution against its own people,” says Mike Clark, president of Friends of the Earth, a major environmental group.

Billions of pounds of the government’s accumulated waste – containing plutonium, arsenic, cyanide, nerve gases, TNT, rocket fuels, pesticides, bacteria and other harmful substances – pose the most immediate threat to public health. Most of these hazardous wastes are generated by the DOE’s and DOD’s nuclear- and conventional-weapons factories, which are for the most part operated by private contractors under federal supervision. But significant amounts of toxic waste also emanate from NASA’s space program, Department of Agriculture research, mining on Department of Interior lands and government-wide equipment maintenance. They are often carelessly discarded in the open environment or haphazardly stockpiled, creating thousands of radioactive and chemical time bombs. “We’ll be paying the price for generations,” says Clark.

Storing hazardous wastes has become a particularly urgent problem. Because the government has made only the barest low-cost effort to provide adequate containment equipment, tons of toxic materials have spilled out or seeped into scores of bodies of water – some of which are connected to drinking faucets in American homes. Waters leading to drinking supplies in and around Denver; Tucson; Cincinnati; and Portland, Oregon, due to their proximity to weapons factories or munitions plants, are threatened with radioactive or chemical contamination. Seven states have already closed more than 300 drinking wells they deemed unsafe.

Another major problem is the government’s habitual use of destructive chemicals for routine cleaning and maintenance of its computers, vehicles and other equipment. Instead of soap and water, federal agencies annually use thousands of gallons of solvents containing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which scientists say eat away at the earth’s ozone layer, allowing the penetration of deadly ultraviolet rays. With the world’s largest fleet of cars, trucks and armored vehicles – many of them crude gas guzzlers – the government is also the single biggest contributor to dirty air, as well as to the greenhouse effect.

Further long-term environmental degradation is being caused by government policies that continue to open up public lands to commercial exploitation, putting private profit ahead of environmental protection. While these policies date back forty or fifty years, they became a kind of religion under former president Reagan and his secretary of the interior James Watt. The U.S. Forest Service, for example, continues to encourage and subsidize widespread cutting of ancient, publicly owned trees – thereby removing one of the most effective antidotes to global warming. Every year timber companies chain-saw another 60,000 acres – three times more than during the construction boom of the 1950s, when logging of the national forests first began in earnest. Perverting its original mission, the Forest Service now spends more money cutting down trees than protecting them. (For more on the Forest Service, see “Hall of Shame,” page 53.)

The government has betrayed its responsibilities to public lands in other ways. Federal policy, by actively encouraging oil and gas drilling in wilderness areas, has destroyed countless wildlife habitats. Meanwhile, federal negligence allows mining companies to leave behind mountains of toxic residue in national parks, and municipalities to deposit garbage containing hazardous waste onto 1000 landfills on federal land.

Another federal policy, advocating massive over-plowing of farmlands, has caused more soil erosion in the last two decades than during the bleak Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. The runoff from farms, laden with silt, manure or high-powered pesticides and fertilizers, is now suffocating the delta area of the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay and Lake Okeechobee, in central Florida, among other major bodies of water.

As Shira Flax, a Sierra Club toxics expert in Washington, D.C., puts it, “Twenty years after the original Earth Day, there’s one great unregulated polluter left in this country – our own government.”

By far the most dangerous form of pollution caused by government mismanagement comes out of the Department of Energy’s nuclear-weapons facilities – a total of seventeen factories, laboratories and test sites scattered around the country. After four decades of research and manufacturing, the DOE is stuck with billions of gallons of radioactive and chemical byproducts, principally at four locations: the Hanford facility, in Washington; the Savannah River tritium plant, in South Carolina; the Rocky Flats plutonium plant, in Colorado; and the Fernald uranium plant, in Ohio. “At Hanford alone, the wastes would cover an area the size of Manhattan with a lake forty feet deep,” says Senate investigator Alvarez.

Perhaps the most acute problem lies in the makeshift ways these plants store their wastes – either in open, unlined ponds or in deteriorating underground steel tanks. For years the DOE and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, assured people living in communities near the bomb plants that the ponds and tanks were providing safe containment. But tests conducted over the last ten years at all four facilities showed conclusively that dangerous amounts of radiation were leaching and spilling out of the ponds and tanks – many of them cracked and corroded – into the local water systems.

At Savannah River, for example, DOE scientists had confidently predicted since the 1960s that it would take at least 1 million years for plutonium from the plant’s stored radioactive wastes to reach the water table. But in the late Seventies, significant traces of the radioactive isotope began to be detected in underground wells. When test readings were kept hidden from the public, Bill Lawless, then a DOE senior engineer at Savannah River, blew the whistle and ultimately testified before Congress. “Basically, the bureaucracy drowned the truth,” Lawless says now. Today radioactivity has been found in Four Mile Creek, which flows into the Savannah River, the region’s biggest water source.

DOE officials had also maintained there were no serious storage or discharge problems at the Fernald plant, located nineteen miles from Cincinnati. But last year a group of local residents won a settlement of its class-action suit after, among other things, it was discovered that eighty-one tons of liquid uranium had entered the Great Miami River, a major fresh-water body in the Cincinnati metropolitan area. And in spite of repeated DOE assurances, radioactive wastes from the Hanford plant were also found in the Columbia River, which supplies water to communities from eastern Washington to western Oregon; similarly, the main water supply for some suburbs of Denver has been contaminated with chemical and radioactive wastes from Rocky Flats.

The DOE has also failed to keep its nuclear-weapons plants from emitting radiation pollution into the air. The cause of this is equal parts defective technology and officially sanctioned negligence. At Fernald, the DOE was forced to acknowledge that at least 197 tons of uranium dust had escaped over the years through the ventilation system because of poor supervision as much as faulty dust-collector bags and gummed-up scrubbers.

“In essence, the DOE fabricated scientific data for thirteen years,” says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, who examined Fernald’s records on behalf of the local residents. Makhijani found long rows of zeros blanketing the documents, suggesting that the filters had operated perfectly. Upon further checking, however, he discovered that the zeros meant that for months on end no one had taken any measurements at all. In the meantime, radioactive particles were, in fact, spewing out the vents.

“It’s still difficult to get a totally accurate picture, because for so long the DOE took the position that everything it did was a state secret,” says Representative Dennis Eckart, an Ohio Democrat. Most of the information about the DOE’s terrible pollution history has been forced out into the open by an avalanche of lawsuits and state and congressional investigations. Assessments of the consequences to public health have finally gotten under way – but in a piecemeal fashion. Today the only independent studies in the Hanford and Fernald areas are being conducted by the Centers for Disease Control. They began a year ago, with no results expected for at least another few years.

“The story of the bomb plants,” says senate investigator Alvarez, “is that they’re just waking up after a forty-year binge of thinking there’s no tomorrow. Well, it’s tomorrow, and welcome to the hangover.”

The one federal department that ranks with the DOE as an environmental polluter is the Department of Defense. None of its approximately 2000 facilities, which include military bases, munitions factories, training grounds, research laboratories and radar sites, produces anything quite as deadly as radiation. Yet the Pentagon is responsible for a wide variety of environmental problems, foremost among them the improper handling of chemical wastes.

Operators of an air-force missile factory outside Tucson, for example, regularly discarded paint, crankcase oil and solvents containing cancer-causing trichloroethylene (TCE) by dumping them into a ditch and other open pits. Residents of one Tucson neighborhood, Southside, have charged in a lawsuit that because of this careless dumping, their drinking wells have been infected with TCE – at forty times the permissible level. “The whole neighborhood was poisoned,” says one resident.

These dumping practices, unfortunately, are standard operating procedure at defense installations around the country. At the army’s Cornhusker ammunition plant, in Nebraska, a seeping swath of chemicals from the manufacture of TNT has ruined 300 private wells in the suburbs of Grand Island. In Maine, state officials have concluded it is unsafe to eat shellfish caught near the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard because of lead and toxic PCBs dumped there. At the army’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal, in Colorado – once the country’s biggest manufacturer of chemical weapons – discarded nerve gases, mustard gas, lead, mercury and arsenic have infiltrated thirty square miles of ground water – apparently causing the yellowing of crops, the death of livestock and various cancers and blood and skin disorders. In Minnesota, wells in an eighteen-square-mile area around the army’s New Brighton munitions facility are contaminated with TCE, and west of New York City, an underground stream containing TCE 5000 times above permissible levels is flowing from the army’s Picatinny Arsenal toward a planned subdivision of 1600 homes.

The Pentagon, which is supposed to be responsible for cleaning up its own hazardous wastes, has not even identified all its problems. Inspections at 1579 facilities have revealed 14,401 sites with threatening toxic wastes. To date, only about two percent have been cleaned up.

Some of these hazardous wastes are a legacy of sloppiness and bad management dating back twenty or thirty years. But in many cases there is also a pervasive arrogance among Defense Department officials that makes them utterly disdainful of the environmental consequences of their operations. Officials at the army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds, in Maryland, had ignored repeated warnings about a deteriorating containment dike. It finally broke in 1985, spilling hundreds of gallons of sulfuric acid used in nerve-gas production into a creek that feeds Chesapeake Bay.

Even when its guilt is obvious, the Pentagon often refuses to make amends. For several years residents of a community outside Jacksonville, Florida, noticed a steady convoy of trucks ferrying wastes from the Jacksonville Naval Air Station to a local landfill. When local wells began to test positive for toxic chemicals – and some residents started contracting immunity disorders, rheumatoid arthritis and other illnesses – navy officials repeatedly denied they were dumping at the landfill. The officials had to backtrack after residents dug six inches into the landfill and exposed containers bearing the navy logo. Yet, to this day, the navy has failed to compensate any of the victims. “I thought the government was supposed to look out for its citizens,” says Yvonne Woodman, a resident who contracted lupus, a sometimes deadly blood disease, after drinking the local water. “But all the navy’s done is look out for itself.”

For sheer haughtiness, however, nothing can top this common scam: When Pentagon officials auction used equipment by lot, they will often dump acids, solvents and other dangerous chemicals in with the valuable hardware. The toxins get pawned off on military-surplus dealers, who discard them wherever they can. The Los Angeles police last year discovered 50,000 gallons of military chemicals, highly corrosive and explosive, that had been left in a vacant lot under a freeway, just a few feet from a river.

There is hardly a major environmental problem to which the Pentagon does not make a substantial contribution. Every branch of the military, with the exception of the air force, still insists on cleaning much of its equipment with CFC solvents, even though they are being phased out elsewhere in the United States and in other developed countries. Military vehicles, especially jets on training missions, also exacerbate such problems as air pollution and acid rain. The jets burn an estimated 8000 gallons of kerosene-based fuel per hour, five percent of which comes out the exhaust valves as an acid-rain-producing mixture of carbon monoxide, nitric oxides, hydrocarbons, soot and sulfur dioxide. And a GAO report last year singled out the Pentagon’s extensive training flights and ground exercises as a cause of damage to the nation’s 452 wildlife refuges. The cold war may be over, but Pentagon officials still want to play their war games. Over the objections of environmentalists and ranchers out West, the DOD is going full speed ahead with a plan to add another 4.6 million acres of wilderness to the 25 million it already has for staging training exercises.

While not to the same extent as the DOE and the DOD, a dozen other departments and agencies under federal control also have appalling environmental track records. What they have in common is chronic ineptitude in the handling of sewage, toxic chemicals and other hazardous substances. Among the offenders are NASA (for dumping rocket fuel or other chemicals at twelve facilities, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, and the White Sands test center, in New Mexico); the Federal Aviation Administration (for discarding solvents and waste oils at 53 airfields in Alaska); the Department of Agriculture (for dumping pesticides and other chemicals at 27 research labs and for spraying the fumigant carbon tetrachloride on surplus grain in 2000 silos in the Farm Belt); the coast guard (for jettisoning toxic waste into lagoons, fire-training pits or the open ground at 8 bases) and the Justice Department (for mishandling sewage at 7 federal prisons).

As head of the EPA’s Federal Facilities Hazardous Waste Compliance Office, Christopher Grundler is the man in charge of the overall effort to root out toxic-waste polluters. “All around the country, you can find little polluters being hit over the head, while right around the corner a big polluter goes free,” says Grundler. “And the big polluter is the federal government. It’s more than ironic: It’s completely unfair.”

How does the government get away with it? The problem goes back to the ambiguous authority the EPA has had from the beginning to enforce environmental laws against other federal agencies. Taking advantage of the legal muddle, Ronald Reagan and his attorney general Ed Meese adopted the position that departments and agencies of the federal government could not be prosecuted for environmental violations. In 1986, Reagan and Meese formalized this philosophy into a legal theory called “unitary theory of the executive,” which effectively stripped the EPA of all enforcement powers at the federal level.

During the 1988 presidential campaign, George Bush himself conceded the federal government’s poor record on environmental self-policing. “Unfortunately, some of the worst violators are our own federal facilities,” Bush said in a Seattle speech. “As president, I will insist that in the future federal agencies meet or exceed environmental standards. The government should live within the laws it imposes on others.”

Yet so far little has changed. A White House spokesman explains that the issue of EPA authority is under review. But EPA officials, now under the strong leadership of William Reilly, are growing impatient. “With a stroke of the pen, Bush could cancel Reagan’s policies and start to untie the EPA’s hands,” says one EPA man. “But Bush’s Justice Department is applying the same legal theories as Reagan’s.”

Another of those theories holds that federal departments and agencies are also immune from state enforcement. Whenever state environmental officials have stepped in and tried to impose penalties on federal violators, the Justice Department has moved to quash them. “Whether the federal government can be bound by the states is an issue for the courts to decide,” says the Bush spokesman.

And with its limited prosecutorial power, the EPA can do little more than jawbone. “Since we can’t levy fines, we’re constantly trying to figure out new ways to say please,” says Grundler. When the EPA set a 1988 deadline for the Pentagon to install a safer waste-treatment system at Rocky Flats, energy officials challenged the deadline in court, setting off a protracted legal battle. An efficient treatment system has yet to be put in.

The EPA did declare a victory when it got the army and Shell Oil, the two managers of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, to agree to a voluntary cleanup. But the agreement was not far-reaching enough to satisfy Colorado governor Roy Romer. He directed his state attorney general to sue the army, Shell and the EPA itself for the right to oversee part of the cleanup. In a breakthrough ruling, U.S. District Court judge James Carrigan last year granted Colorado partial jurisdiction. In strong language he denounced the EPA deal as one “between two polluters, the army and Shell … [to] limit cleanup standards, thus lowering costs for both defendants.”

Officials and citizens in several states have devised other strategies for putting the squeeze on the federal government. They have even gone to federal court to file civil suits against the DOE and the DOD, seeking restitution for the enormous cleanup costs and other damages. “There’s a new Boston Tea Party in the works,” says Alvarez. “People at the state and local level are rising up in open rebellion.”

More and more of late, the government has been finding itself a defendant in environmental actions in every region of the country. In the lawsuit brought by neighbors of the Fernald plant, a federal judge ordered a $73 million settlement to the plaintiffs last year for their emotional distress and loss of property values. Meanwhile, the state of Ohio has filed suit against the DOE for nuclear contamination at its Piketon facility; the state of Colorado is seeking compensation for damages from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal; the state of Minnesota is contemplating a suit against the Twin Cities Air Force Reserve Base over chemical wastes; and residents of Tucson, Jacksonville and other cities where drinking wells have been contaminated by military waste are gearing up for court battles as well.

The man most in the hot seat right now is George Bush’s new Department of Energy secretary, retired admiral James Watkins. Responding to a fusillade of bad publicity triggered by protests from irate citizens, national environmental groups and a few outspoken members of Congress, Watkins is taking an entirely different tack than his predecessors did. In speeches and congressional testimony, he has made what amounts to public confessions of past abuses within his department, characterizing the DOE as “careless” and “unaccountable.” He has pledged to elevate the status of environmental concerns in future policies and decision making.

In the last eighteen months, the DOE has sharply curtailed production at its nuclear-weapons facilities, ordering temporary halts at Rocky Flats, Hanford and Savannah River and preparing for a permanent shutdown at Fernald. But even that will not solve all of the DOE’s problems. Barring the unlikely event of total disarmament, the bomb plants will continue to churn out weapons and to produce some amount of radioactive waste. And even if there is total disarmament, the accumulated stored waste already in place will continue to constitute a threat. Watkins is well aware that at Hanford, for example, if the wastes stored in several of the 149 tanks are not adequately stabilized and removed, they might well explode from their internal combustible mixture of cyanide, nitrates and nitrites. Such an explosion was recently revealed by Soviet officials to have taken place in 1957 in the U.S.S.R., turning the homeland of Ural Mountain villagers into a no man’s land.

A long-standing DOE plan to move stored wastes to a man-made cavern 2100 feet below the New Mexico desert has been put on hold indefinitely. Geologic pressure on the cavern has turned out to be twice the level originally estimated, and cracks are showing up in the ceiling. Watkins and his staff may have to go back to the drawing board for a long-term solution to their storage problems.

A further challenge for Watkins is how to get control of a bureaucracy accustomed to suppressing information. DOE officials had known for years about the explosive conditions of the Hanford waste tanks from a study conducted in 1984. But the report was kept secret until last October, when Senator John Glenn obtained it and released a copy.

“Old habits die hard,” says Representative Synar. “Change is coming, but it’s not coming fast. Throughout the federal government, the approach is still ‘Go slow.’ “

Indeed, the foot dragging extends to one pivotal question: How much will it cost the federal government to clean up its mess? Researchers for the Congressional Budget Office say it’s impossible to get a fix on total costs right now; there are still a number of departments and agencies, including the Pentagon and the Department of the Interior, that have yet to come up with a serious plan to address their pollution problems. One independent estimate of the eventual cleanup costs for the defense and energy departments together comes to a staggering $330 billion – twice the officially estimated tab for the bailout of the savings and loan industry.

For the next fiscal year, Watkins has requested $2.8 billion to begin the process of cleaning up – a figure that’s getting mixed reviews in Congress. But the Pentagon request is for only $500 million, half the amount many would consider a bare minimum. Defending the low figure, Pentagon officials say that as the cold war dies down and military bases are closed, they want to seal off the most contaminated facilities with fences rather than clean them up. To environmentalists this is no solution at all.

How willing is the federal government to get tough on itself? The answer may be reflected in recent revelations that at one time five of the EPA’s thirteen research laboratories required substantial remodeling. These labs had been cited by inspectors – some of them from the agency itself – for violating the very environmental regulations the EPA is charged with enforcing.

In This Article: Coverwall, Environment


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