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Old Weapons, New Problems

Cleaning up sites across the United States where the Defense Department has tested weapons could prove to be "the largest environmental cleanup program ever to be implemented in the United States," according to one of a series of internal Environmental Protection Documents made public Monday by a lobbying group.

The group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, claims the documents show that "the public health and environmental consequences from bombs, chemical and biological weapons buried on abandoned and converted defense sites in the U.S. are much larger than previously reported." The Washington Post first reported the story.

The document depicting the size of the looming cleanup as potentially the biggest ever was a briefing paper for the EPA's new enforcement director, John Suarez.

That document also states that "EPA estimates that there are up to 16,000 military ranges with [unexploded ordnance] in the U.S. potentially affecting thirty to forty million acres of land." Many of these sites, the briefing claims, are no longer used by the military.

Furthermore, the briefing paper states that cleaning up the sites will be a complicated task for several reasons:

  • The Army Corps of Engineers has been lax in complying with regulations, coordinating with other agencies or conducting thorough remediation projects.
  • The fact that the hazardous materials are often unexploded bombs will slow down any clean-up process.
  • "Records pertaining to historical activities on ranges according to the Army Environmental Center are scarce and a comprehensive range identification effort still needs to be completed by the military," the briefing reads.

    A 2001 report by the General Accounting Office supports the last point. "DOD's inventory of training ranges is likely incomplete, and its estimated cost to clean up these ranges is likely understated."

    "In its annual report, DOD accounts of completed projects include projects that were ineligible or that did not involve any actual cleanup effort. As a result, the impression is that after 15 years and expenditures of $2.6 billion, more than half of the projects at formerly used defense sites have been completed," the GAO report found.

    "In reality, only about 32 percent of those projects that required actual cleanup actions have been completed, and those are the cheapest and least technologically challenging," it said.

    To advocates, the fact that the actual size of the clean-up project is unknown is what makes the problem a frightening one.

    "The true magnitude of this unfolding ecological disaster is masked by the Pentagon's unwillingness to complete a reliable inventory or adopt credible cleanup rules," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch in a press release.

    PEER has also obtained an interim EPA report that PEER claims illustrates that the final report released to the public was toned down.

    For example, the interim report states, "The ranges included in this survey pose potentially significant threats to human health and the environment." That line does not appear in the final report as published on PEER's web site, although similar statements are made in that report.

    The interim report also claims that, "Anecdotal evidence suggests that DoD is often reluctant to investigate off-range areas." That line does not appear in the final report.

    Raymond F. DuBois, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, told the Post that cleaning up old testing grounds might cost upwards of $14 billion.

    He denied any effort to conceal the scope of the challenge.

    "No one could deny that this is a long-term, large problem. We have never hidden it. We don't intend to," DuBois told the newspaper.

    Another Pentagon official told the Post that the problems cited in the briefing paper are old and that the military has improved its cooperation on environmental matters.

    By Jarrett Murphy

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