The threat at home


By Seth Shulman | 1994-03-01 12:00:00

From fires in the oil fields of the Persian Gulf to radioactive waste off the coast of Sweden, the past few years have seen growing public awareness of some of the environmental costs of war. Yet as Seth Shulman points out in The Threat at Home, it is often much closer to home that the worst examples of ecological damage can be found. There is only scant comfort for Canadians that the book's culprit is the U.S. military and related industries, given our proximity to the U.S. and the similar concerns that have been raised about our military's environmental practices.

This book is a catalogue of frightening examples of the threats to our physical environment as a result of activities as diverse as weapons tests and illegal waste disposal. While the radiation contamination of Hanford Nuclear Reservation is a dramatic example, the vast quantities of unexploded munitions are a more understandable evil. At the Jefferson Proving Ground in Indiana there are over 1 million unexploded bombs, mines, and artillery shells, some of which are buried as deep as 30 feet underground.

At one point it was being seriously suggested that the land with unexploded munitions be sold to farmers for $25 million, with the sale price to be used to help decontaminate some of the buildings. In 1989 it was decided that the land should be fenced in. The estimated total costs for decontaminating the site is $13 billion.

A more serious and long-term effect explored in the book is the problem of the storage and disposal of toxic substances. From lead to spent uranium pellets, to cleaning solvents, to chemical and biological weapons, the disposal of military waste poses a number of complexproblems. The way that these problems are dealt with often poses a danger that can have long term effects.

Between 1944 and 1947 the Hanford Nuclear Reservation released some 400,000 curies of radioactive iodine into the air without informing people. Approximately 13,000 people received exposures as high as 2,500 rads. Workers in U.S. nuclear power plants have a maximum exposure level of 5 rads per year. This is one small example of the activities around one nuclear weapon facility. The estimated cost of decontaminating the site is $57 billion.

The City of Toronto has a toxic taxi to come to your home and pick up empty paint cans, solvents, and other hazardous wastes. On U.S. military bases the most common way for such material to be disposed of is to dump it by pouring wastes directly into the ground, storing toxic material in rusting underground tanks, or disposed of through more devious methods.

The story of finding approximately 40,000 gallons of military toxic waste in a barn in Collinsville, California, may be the most revealing of the U.S. military's attitude. Included in this find were 15 drums of methyl di-isocyanate which had been in the public eye when released in Bhopal, India. A Californian businessman had bought the toxic substances from the military at an auction of surplus and waste material, then leased the Collinsville site and subsequently moved out of state. A 1990 Congressional hearing on the matter revealed that it had been the practice of the military to rid itself of dangerous toxic materials by including them with lots of safe goods sold to the public. The cost of the clean-up of this site was $1 million, paid for by California taxpayers as the military claimed it had no responsibility for the toxic waste it had produced.

The Threat at Home contains a long litany of dangerous, illegal or unsafe military practices dealing with toxic waste disposal. Shulman's direct, nonapocalyptic approach to describing environmental concerns allows for the facts to stand out vividly. We are reminded of the often unplanned side effects of human activities, as well as of the lengths that some people within an organization will go in order to protect its reputation.

The scale of waste that Shulman deals with is hard to grasp. The U.S. military produces over a ton of toxic waste every minute. Excluding U.S. bases in foreign nations and some 7,000 former military sites, the Pentagon said it had 17,482 potentially contaminated sites at 1,855 installations in 1990. These vast numbers are made comprehensible by a straight forward approach that brings together statistical analysis and simple examples.

Shulman is obviously a pragmatist. He doesn't try to scare the reader with the potential consequences of toxic waste. He doesn't claim that all those involved in the military are evil individuals out to destroy the planet for some sinister purpose. He comes across as a person who trusts that people will find solutions to problems when given facts. In short, Shulman doesn't let rhetoric interfere with his arguments.

We may not be able to immediately clean up the problems left behind due to military practices. The costs involved and the entrenched attitudes are barriers to substantial change.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1994

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1994, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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