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Is hazardous military waste making Americans sick?

July 22, 2017 at 5:19 PM EDT
"Bombs in our Backyard," a new investigative series from ProPublica, looks at how the Pentagon’s disposal of military waste has created thousands of toxic sites in the United States. Abrahm Lustgarten, who reported the story for ProPublica, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how the Pentagon's management of munitions waste has become a health risk for communities across the country.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:  A new investigative series from “ProPublica” called “Bombs in Our Backward” looks at the disposal of military waste and how it’s affecting communities around the United States.  yesterday, I spoke with the author of the series, Abrahm Lustgarten, from the NewsHour studios in Washington, D.C.

Give us an overview how significant is he problem of military waste disposal in the United States.

ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN, PROPUBLICA:  Well, I mean, starting at, you know, World War I, you know, every bomb, every bullet, every weapon that we have developed for defense purposes has been developed, designed and manufactured through industrial processes and then tested and eventually in many cases disposed off as they get old and expire on American soil.

SREENIVASAN:  Aren’t there already environmental regulations from the EPA or other places that would protect water or air quality?  I mean, does the military have an exemption from those?

LUSTGARTEN:  Yes.  I mean, there are stringent Environmental Protection Agency regulations.  Some of which apply to the Pentagon and some which don’t.  In the case of open burns, the Pentagon is essentially burning what’s defined as hazardous waste and the EPA regulated the burning the hazardous waste back in the 1980s.  So, 30 or so years ago.  Explosives were admittedly difficult to deal with.

So, at the time, they created a little bit of a loophole.  It said that the Pentagon and other specialized companies that deal only in explosive can continue to burn that stuff if that’s the only way they can get rid of it, but only until the improved technology figure out a better way to deal with it, at which point they would be required by the regulations to move to those alternatives.

Those now exist.  They have for a long time, but the Department of Defense still leans very heavily on burning as their stand by process.

SREENIVASAN:  Yes.  How widespread is this around the country?  I mean, you’ve got a map on one of your stories.  How many different sites are there that are doing this that could be of concern to the neighborhood that they’re in?

LUSTGARTEN:  So, we obtained the list that had been compiled internally within the EPA and it listed just about 200 sites, 197 sites across the country where burns had been documented, not all those are still operating now.  There are about 60 sites that are still operating now, about 51 of which are operated directly by the Department of Defense or its contractors, as opposed to NASA and a couple of other private companies.

Those sites still today burn anywhere from a couple of hundred thousand pounds of explosives a year, up to 15 million pounds of explosive a year.

SREENIVASAN:  So, one of the places that you profiled actually had an elementary school not too far away and there were people that were in adjacent farms.  What are the kind of health consequences that they’re having?

LUSTGARTEN:  It’s really difficult to know what the direct consequences are of the burning.  What we know is that in the place that I looked at, Radford, Virginia, Colfax, Louisiana, is another town and in other places, there are people who appear to have unusually high rates of illnesses.  They’re concerned about what’s causing those illnesses.  They suspect that it could be tied to the pollution.

And on the other hand, it’s well-documented and disclosed that there is substantial pollution, that the pollution poses a substantial health threat.  But part of what we focus on the story this week is the lack of an effort to try to bridge that question and that answer.  There’s really been remarkably little attention paid to trying to determine whether people are actually getting sick from these operations.

SREENIVASAN:  All right.  Abrahm Lustgarten from “ProPublica”, joining us from San Francisco today — thank you so much for your time.

LUSTGARTEN:  Thank you.

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