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By Jonathan Sharp
For over a century, the US army’s negligent use and disposal of toxic chemicals on and around its bases have incurred a significant environmental toll on countless individuals.
Due to the lack of knowledge regarding their long-term risks, troops and civilians who lived and worked on contaminated military installations were unwittingly exposed to severe health hazards known to cause deadly illnesses.
While veterans and military families bear the brunt of toxic exposure’s long-lasting effects, chemicals leaching from contaminated bases also contribute to a pervasive pattern of environmental discrimination.
In states like Oklahoma, where health disparities are exceedingly evident along ethnic lines, “emerging contaminants” linked to the Army’s use of hazardous firefighting solutions add to the disproportionate health burdens that vulnerable minority communities already experience.
A Long History of Toxic Issues
Extensive contamination has long been an issue that flew under the Army’s radar, as exemplified by infamous instances such as North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base. For over three decades (1953 – 1987), close to 1 million troops, dependents, and civilians who lived, served, and worked on the base were unknowingly exposed to severe health hazards like perchloroethylene, trichloroethylene, vinyl chloride, benzene, and per/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
PFAS are a group of over 12,000 synthetic compounds known as “forever chemicals” due to their solid molecular structures that prevent natural breakdown. In particular, the compounds PFOA and PFOS were widely used in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a type of flame-suppressant used on airports and military bases since the 70s in training scenarios and to put out difficult fuel blazes.
However, despite the qualities that garnered their use in a broad range of commercial products, PFAS represent a distinct environmental threat. Since they don’t naturally decompose, PFAS bioaccumulate and can last for years in the body, with prolonged exposure to these chemicals being linked to several types of cancer, thyroid issues, higher blood pressure or preeclampsia in pregnant women, increased cholesterol levels, lower birth weights, and decreased vaccine response in children.
Moreover, thanks to their strong chemical bonds, PFAS can easily seep through the soil and contaminate surrounding underground aquifers used for drinking water.
Although Camp Lejeune’s status as a military Superfund site since 1989 meant that ongoing remediation efforts allowed it to remain operational, it isn’t a singular case – more than 700 military installations across the country registered PFAS contaminants on their premises, with a recent study noting that close to 3,500 active and closed bases are presumed to be affected.
Environmental Racism and forever chemicals in Oklahoma
In the early to mid-1900s, land in minority neighborhoods was severely undervalued as a result of discriminatory redlining practices that designated them as substandard. In turn, areas with a higher percentage of Black and BIPOC residents became low-cost options for situating Army bases, factories, landfills, traffic ways, and other sources of toxic pollution. The higher health burden marginalized communities face due to a legacy of systemic prejudice is better known as “environmental racism.”
Events like the Flint Water Crisis, during which up to 100,000 residents of a mostly-Black area were exposed to dangerous amounts of lead in their drinking water, remain stark reminders of the environmental risks that African-Americans encounter to this day. In Oklahoma, communities surrounding several bases where AFFF was used have to contend with PFAS runoff threatening drinking water sources.
For reference, the EPA established (non-enforceable) health advisories for “forever chemicals” like PFOA and PFOS of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) back in 2016.
Oklahoma’s most contaminated bases include Altus Air Force Base (1,150,000 ppt), Vance Air Force Base (329,000 ppt), Tinker Air Force Base (170,000 ppt), and the Air National Guard Base at Tulsa International Airport (69,000 ppt).
Other military locations in the Sooner State where PFAS were confirmed include the Will Rogers World Airport, Air Force Plant 3, the Midwest City Readiness Center, and Camp Gruber.
PFAS contaminants from Tinker AFB have compromised drinking water sources in neighboring communities, with the Air Force providing bottled water to affected residents since 2020.
Additionally, a study from the Waterkeeper Alliance published this year found PFOS and HPO-DA (a type of PFAS known as GenX) in the Tar Creek River, which can end up in the Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees downstream, an important regional drinking water source.
Similar to Camp Lejeune, both Tinker AFB and Tar Creek have been listed as Superfund sites since the 80s.
Ensuring Environmental Justice and Reform
In the US, ethnicity and race are the leading indicators of higher toxic exposure risks, even more so than income status (though they are often intertwined). African-Americans are more prone to respiratory afflictions, inhale 56% more airborne hazards than they produce, and are more likely to live closer to highly contaminated areas.
According to a recent report from the Oklahoma State Department of Health, African-Americans report the highest fatalities for heart and cerebrovascular diseases, diabetes, lung and prostate cancer, and also have the highest percentage of low birth weights and infant mortality.
Comprehensive institutional involvement is required to create a legal framework that protects vulnerable frontline communities, encourages lasting reform, and keeps polluters accountable for their actions. Fortunately, environmental and social justice have become increasingly essential policy points over the past several years, prompting encouraging developments.
The National Defense Authorization Act will finance vital PFAS cleanup efforts on the most contaminated bases in the country, including Altus, Vance, and Tinker, and will completely phase out AFFF from military use by October 2024.
Meanwhile, federal programs like Justice40 and the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide critical funding for at-risk minority communities to address long-standing environmental hazards.
Even though Oklahoma currently doesn’t have any regulations concerning PFAS contaminants in drinking water, the EPA seeks to establish federally-enforceable levels by 2023. Earlier this year, the agency updated its health advisories for PFOA and PFOS, drastically reducing acceptable levels from its former 70 ppt recommendation to just .004 ppt and .02 ppt (respectively).
Jonathan Sharp is the CFO of Environmental Litigation Group PC, a law firm based in Birmingham, Alabama, that specializes in toxic exposure cases.