Over the last hundred years, the U.S. military has recklessly used and disposed of toxic chemicals in and around its bases. Countless troops stationed at contaminated installations, often accompanied by their families, have been unintentionally exposed to hazardous substances known to cause debilitating and life-threatening diseases.
North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune infamously exemplifies the concerning extent to which toxic contamination has gone unaddressed, affecting unsuspecting service members and kin for over three decades. Although the base’s issues were acknowledged by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), many of those affected by Camp Lejeune’s contamination have been repeatedly denied disability benefits.
The U.S. Army’s Longstanding Issues With Toxic Contamination
From 1953 to 1987, Camp Lejeune housed close to 1 million service members and their families. For over 30 years, they were exposed to a slew of volatile organic compounds resulting from oil, degreasers, solvents, radioactive waste, and industrial chemicals used and disposed of on the base or in its vicinity, in concentrations 240 to 3,400 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) safety limits.
Some of the most hazardous chemicals affecting Camp Lejeune’s grounds include notorious carcinogens like trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), benzene, vinyl chloride and per/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Prolonged exposure to such toxins leads to their bioaccumulation, which can progressively trigger irreversible conditions and adverse effects, from multiple types of cancer to sclerosis, organ damage, impaired reproduction, congenital issues and miscarriage.
Camp Lejeune is merely one of more than 700 army bases around the U.S. where extensive toxic contamination has been identified. The armed forces’ reliance on aqueous film-forming foam in firefighting training scenarios and to extinguish difficult fuel blazes since the 1970s allowed harmful PFAS compounds to proliferate on its installations. Florida, for instance, is home to 22 such locations, including Patrick Space Force Base, where PFAS readings peaked at 4,338,000 parts per trillion (ppt), nearly 62,000 times higher than the EPA’s former health advisory standard of 70 ppt. Other contaminated bases include the Naval Air Station Jacksonville (1,397,120 ppt), Tyndall Air Force Base (902,460 ppt), Eglin Air Force Base (552,300 ppt) and MacDill Air Force Base (523,710 ppt).
From 2011 to 2019, over 84,000 Camp Lejeune disability claims were filed in the United States, with an overall rejection rate of 80 percent (over 67,000 claims). A recent report from the VA’s Inspector General also notes that 37 percent of Camp Lejeune disability claims filed from 2017 to 2021 were denied by the department, totaling $13.8 million in unpaid benefits. The challenges that veterans face are indeed regrettable, but they are sadly nothing new for many communities of color that have to deal with pollution’s insidious effects on a daily basis.
However, Camp Lejeune isn’t a singular case — contaminated military bases across the U.S. represent a genuine concern for communities of color. Alongside veterans, vulnerable and marginalized communities are also disproportionately affected by toxic pollution, with 44.9 percent of neighborhoods located in a 1.8-mile radius of highly contaminated areas being majority communities of color.
Marginalized Communities Face Higher Environmental Risks
In the 20th century, discriminatory zoning policies undervalued land in neighborhoods where marginalized communities lived. As a result, such areas became a magnet for industrial facilities, army installations, landfills, ports, traffic routes, and other pollution sources that negatively impacted residents’ health. This insidious practice is one piece of the phenomenon known as “environmental racism.”
With the EPA’s most recent review of ongoing cleanup efforts still uncovering traces of toxins at Camp Lejeune, the possibility of toxic runoff from the base remains a genuine concern for the surrounding community, of which more than a third are people of color and 18 percent are Latinx. After Hurricane Florence pummeled the base for three days in 2018, an ensuing sewage spill spread 84,000 gallons of wastewater from Camp Lejeune into the neighboring areas. At least three other similar events have occurred since.
Combating environmental racism and its pernicious long-lasting effects has been the subject of increasing political action in recent years. While criminal convictions such as those in the Tonawanda Coke Corporation case ($24.7 million in penalties) prosecuted under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act seek to continually deter industrial polluters, marginalized communities vulnerable to events like the Flint water crisis often lack the financial and legal resources to go up against influential interest groups and individuals who would rather maintain the status quo and protect their financial bottom line.
Since President Biden assumed office in 2021, his administration has taken some first steps toward addressing the U.S.’s enduring toxic issues. The Honoring Our PACT Act, signed in August 2022, provides veterans and their relatives affected by hazardous substances easier access to disability benefits through the VA, and the Justice40 federal program intends to direct 40 percent of future environmental investments toward vulnerable communities of color that struggle with historic contamination.
With the adoption of the National Defense Authorization Act, toxic aqueous film-forming foam will be phased out from all U.S. military installations by October 2024, and its use will be forbidden in training scenarios, while other proposals such as the Clean Water for Military Families Act and Filthy Fifty Act aim to push for more urgent and comprehensive cleanup and remedial efforts on severely PFAS-contaminated bases around the country.
Most encouraging of all, the EPA has recently updated its health advisory recommendation for widespread PFAS contaminants from a former 70 ppt standard to a drastically lower 0.004-0.02 ppt limit. Though not enforceable, this modification represents the first major step that the EPA is taking towards setting actionable levels for PFAS compounds, which it hopes to finalize by 2023. Stricter regulations and standards will allow states to effectively address contamination expeditiously when it’s detected, and will enable disenfranchised frontline communities to seek justice against irresponsible polluters.