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.”