Needed: a military Superfund

THE stories have been appearing frequently in newspapers across the country. An Air Force missile plant in Tucson, Ariz., has polluted the aquifer that supplies the city with water. At Rocky Mountain Arsenal outside Denver, Army hydrologists have charted the flow of toxic chemicals in the water beneath the city. Army contractors have sunk additional wells at the Twins Cities Army Ammunition Plant in Minnesota to monitor the level of toxics flowing into the surrounding suburbs. All of these stories, apparently isolated incidents, are actually part of a larger national problem. The Department of Defense is the largest producer of toxic waste in the country. The Pentagon now generates more than 500,000 tons of hazardous waste a year, more than the five largest chemical companies in the country combined. Defending America has become a vast industrial enterprise, requiring all the chemicals, caustic solvents, lubricants, and cleansers that private industry uses.

The military has improved its efforts to prevent additional toxics from polluting the environment. But like private industry, the Defense Department has inherited a vast problem from the ill-informed policies of the past.

Over the years, literally billions of gallons of these dangerous chemicals have been disposed of at more than 4,000 sites on as many as 473 military bases. Leaks from many sites have contaminated the soil and ground-water supplies in virtually every state. Thus far the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found 33 military bases containing toxic sites so dangerous as to warrant inclusion on the National Priorities List, the roster of the worst toxic dumps in the country. The Department of Defense e stimates that eventually 50 bases will be added to the list.

At present, the military does not fall under the Superfund program set up to finance the cleanup of civilian toxic sites. The military began its own cleanup program in 1975. Ten years later, not a single site has been completely cleaned up. Cost estimates for the complete cleanup program have spiraled, from $1.6 billion less than a year ago to $5 billion to $10 billion in February.

The Department of Defense cleanup program has been too slow and unresponsive to the concerns of communities near military facilities, to the state and local environmental and health agencies. Too often the military has opted for the easy solution and the short-term cleanup fix, which fails to render the poisons completely harmless.

This state of affairs cannot be tolerated when the evidence of the potential health risk posed by toxic waste is mounting.

A military Superfund must be established and funded to accelerate and better coordinate our cleanup efforts. In addition, several relatively modest improvements should be a part of any legislation to get such a program on course.

First, firm links should be established between federal, state, and local environmental agencies and the armed services. Recently, in the first comprehensive review of military cleanup attempts, the General Accounting Office concluded that the Pentagon should revise its policy to provide for increased and earlier involvement of the EPA and state and local environmental agencies in all phases of the military cleanup program.

Conflicts between local civilian agencies and the military over standards, procedures, and cleanup plans have produced costly delays that endanger the public health.

Second, the process of approving cleanup projects must be streamlined. Currently, Defense Department regulations result in its taking anywhere from three to five years to secure funding for a cleanup project that involves construction of just about any kind. It is ludicrous to take several years to determine the best cleanup plan and then be forced to wait several more years for the plan to be funded. Congress has acquiesced for too long to rules and regulations that result in costly delays.

Third, the military must commit more resources toward research and demonstration to promote the development of new, more cost-effective cleanup technologies. The Department of Defense over the next few years will spend between $5 billion and $10 billion to clean up its toxic sites. It is only wise to devote some of these funds to explore new techniques that will clean up toxics less expensively and more thoroughly.

Congress has adopted one set of environmental laws and standards. They should be applied equally to all parties, including federal agencies and departments. The military should be held no less accountable for cleaning up its toxic waste sites than any private-sector polluter; both have created a threat to the public health and environment that must be eliminated. Future generations depend on our responding to this problem now.

Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California is a member of the House Appropriations and Budget Committees.

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