Advertisement
Share

U.S. Military Leaves Toxic Trail Overseas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The United States’ far-flung network of overseas military bases, operating in secret and far outside the reach of American environmental regulation, has left a quagmire of chemical contamination all around the globe that will cost billions of dollars to correct and will damage American foreign policy interests for years to come.

And, while the problem of toxic waste dumps created at home by industrial polluters has received high-level government attention, the very existence of a huge problem overseas is almost unknown outside the Pentagon.

For years, the brook that runs through this small village just beyond the runways of Bitburg Air Base has been a dumping ground for unwanted jet fuel, chemical solvents and firefighting chemicals.

Other U.S. military installations have polluted the drinking water of the Pacific island of Guam, poured tons of toxic chemicals into Subic Bay in the Philippines, leaked carcinogens into the water source of a German spa, spewed tons of sulfurous coal smoke into the skies of Central Europe and pumped millions of gallons of raw sewage into the oceans.

Advertisement

Even as they defended the freedom and security interests of the United States and its allies, America’s armed forces have bequeathed to their hosts another legacy as well, one of enduring environmental damage.

“The Department of Defense is not blameless,” conceded David J. Berteau, the senior civilian Pentagon official in charge of environmental programs. “There (are) places where we have not lived up to our responsibilities. We’ve done some dumb things in the disposal of hazardous materials.”

Today, with the Pentagon preparing to close scores of costly foreign bases because of a deepening budget crunch and easing world tensions, the bill for decades of careless and arrogant environmental behavior is coming due.

And the tab will be paid not only in billions of dollars in cleanup costs but also in strained relations with many of America’s most valued allies.

Indeed, Army and Air Force officials in West Germany have warned that U.S. military officers or civilian employees face “the specter of criminal charges, especially concerning ground-water pollution.” Such charges have already been brought in West Germany and Italy, where prosecutors have charged civilian employees of the U.S. military with illegal disposal of hazardous chemicals.

As the world’s most extensive industrial enterprise, the military generates huge quantities of hazardous wastes--used oils and solvents, paint sludges, plating residues, heavy metals, asbestos, cyanide, PCBs, battery acid, pesticides, herbicides and virtually every other toxic substance known to man. American military power plants in Europe also have caused significant air pollution and acid rain by burning high-sulfur content coal imported from the United States, a result of congressional action in the 1970s to help the faltering American soft-coal industry.

Lethal Waste Piles Up

The Pentagon also creates such special classes of lethal byproducts as high-level radioactive wastes from atomic weapons plants, high explosive powder, outdated chemical weapons, rocket fuels and ordnance practice ranges full of unexploded bullets, bombs and artillery shells.

Advertisement

In addition, the 2 million men and women in uniform and 1 million civilian Pentagon employees stationed in the U.S. and around the globe daily produce tons of ordinary garbage, medical wastes, photographic chemicals and as much sewage as a large city.

By the Pentagon’s own admission, much of this waste has been treated cavalierly both in the United States and abroad. A seven-year survey of 1,579 domestic bases found 14,401 sites of known and suspected contamination, including 87 that qualify for inclusion on the Superfund list of the most polluted places in America. Cleaning up the messes at U.S. bases will cost at least $20 billion, and perhaps as much as $200 billion, according to Defense Department estimates.

The Pentagon has not even begun to assess the scope of the problem at foreign facilities, fearing the staggering cost of cleanup and the wrath of allies.

While there is no systematic effort under way to determine how badly polluted America’s overseas bases are, the Army--without even looking formally--has identified 300 contaminated sites in West Germany alone. Of the total, 30 are on bases slated for closure and 25 are currently deemed serious enough to require expensive long-term remedies.

Advertisement

Polluted Sites Known

The Air Force has acknowledged that it has polluted soil, streams or ground water at every one of its airfields in Europe.

The Navy says it does not know the extent of contamination at its many overseas bases because it has neither money nor a legal requirement to study the problem. The Navy’s senior environmental officer conceded that the service is aware of a number of polluted sites worldwide but refused to identify them because, he said, it would create “problems with host nations.”

In disposing of its wastes, the Defense Department both in the United States and overseas has followed what it calls “the commonly accepted practices of the times.” Those practices included, according to Pentagon documents, “discharge on the ground into unlined pits . . . or local creeks,” “pouring and spraying on the ground,” “drainage to industrial sewers,” “burning during fire protection training” and “storage in leaking underground tanks.”

Advertisement

The result: thousands of sites where toxic pollution has poisoned drinking water, killed fish and birds, befouled the air and rendered vast tracts of land unusable for generations.

Some severely contaminated Defense Department sites have become “national sacrifice zones,” permanently fenced and guarded against any human use.

Hermann Schafer, a brewery worker who lives in the town of Rohl, a scant three miles from Bitburg Air Base, complains that human waste, oil, solvents and firefighting foam from the base have over the years poured into the Rohlbach, the stream that winds through the village, killing fish, vegetation, even insects.

“Pipelines from the base end in this formerly natural brook, making it more or less a sewer,” he said recently. “Nothing can live in it.”

Advertisement

The base only last year completed a new sewage treatment plant after years of complaints from West German authorities about pollution of the Rohl creek and several other nearby streams.

The base, home of 72 F-15 Eagle fighters, also imposes high-decibel pollution in the form of deafening day and night jet noise, Schafer complained. Base officers said the jets take off and land 150 times a day in good flying weather and practice low-level flying over a wide swath of central West Germany.

The Air Force, with no trace of irony, calls jet noise “The Sound of Freedom.” Schafer and others call it “air terror” and consider it an affront to West German sovereignty.

“The citizens are sick and tired of Americans eating up more and more land and putting a burden on them of 24-hour-a-day noise,” said Schafer, 52. “We have a right to human health in our constitution, and it is constantly stepped on by the Americans.”

Advertisement

The full extent of the military’s overseas pollution remains shrouded in secrecy, the result of a deliberate U.S. government attempt to conceal data on the problem.

The only congressional audit on the subject, a 1986 study which uncovered significant toxic contamination at U.S. bases in West Germany, Italy and England, was quickly stamped secret by the Pentagon and the State Department because of the potential diplomatic fallout. Publicizing the information, officials argued, could affect sensitive negotiations on the return of leased facilities to host countries, which are expected to demand that the United States undertake costly cleanups.

Officials also worry that evidence of severe pollution at overseas bases might intensify calls--already being heard in West Germany, Greece, Spain and the Philippines--for the Yankees to pack up their noisy, dirty weaponry and go home.

A second congressional study, now being prepared, is also expected to be classified for national security reasons. Officials familiar with the report said, however, that there has been little improvement in the situation in the four years between the two studies.

Advertisement

In response to requests by The Times under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act for data on contamination at specific foreign bases, the Air Force said it could not meet the law’s legal deadline and would provide some information at an unspecified future date. The Navy did not respond at all.

An internal Pentagon memorandum obtained by The Times called hazardous waste contamination in Europe “an emerging political issue” and “a serious budget problem.”

According to the memo, prepared after a visit in late 1988 to West Germany by a senior Pentagon environmental official, “the Air Force has been hesitant to identify and investigate sites because of the potential political ramifications. They have a technical-political dilemma. If they identify sites, do nothing and the Germans find out, they have problems. If they don’t do anything and the Germans identify (that) the pollution exists, they have problems.”

The memo noted that then-U.S. Ambassador to West Germany Richard R. Burt proposed to address the problem by “lobbying the press ‘much like the military lobbies Congress’ to give them good stories to print about military pollution abatement and maneuver damage minimization efforts.”

Advertisement

Some German officials, however, consider American pollution of their country to be more than a mere public relations nuisance.

“The extent of contamination on U.S. bases is shocking,” said Gernot Rotter, a member of the environmentalist Green Party in the legislature of the German state of Rhineland-Pfalz, home of the largest contingent of American GIs outside the United States. “Up to now, the government in Bonn has done nothing. I’m not blaming the Americans as much as the German government, which has allowed them to do whatever they want.

“And that’s the problem. The military is entirely self-regulating. Militaries are always arrogant. They are separate. They speak a different language. They have a different culture. They make up their own rules,” Rotter said.

Regulation Is Lax

Advertisement

In theory and in policy, the American armed services abroad follow U.S. or host nation environmental law, whichever is stricter. In practice, they follow neither because U.S. regulation does not reach overseas while military installations are generally exempted from host nation laws under basing agreements, said Rep. Richard Ray (D-Ga.), chairman of a House Armed Services Committee panel that monitors military environmental practices.

“There has not been a thorough or independent review of the Department of Defense’s compliance with this policy” requiring voluntary adherence to U.S. or foreign law, Ray said at a recent hearing on the subject. “And, in addition, consistent environmental guidance among the various services did not appear to exist within the same host nation.”

Berteau, the Pentagon environmental official, conceded that in the past overseas military commanders treated wastes negligently, but said the current generation of officers is “a lot more sensitive to these issues than previous commanders were.”

Yet today, seven years after the Pentagon created the Defense Environmental Restoration Program to investigate chemical contamination at U.S. facilities, the Defense Department has no program and no budget for cleaning up its polluted overseas bases, Berteau acknowledged.

Advertisement

As a result of past negligence at overseas installations, negotiations with foreign governments over environmental damages will be tense, expensive and perhaps ultimately damaging to U.S. interests abroad, senior military and civilian government officials said.

“You’re getting into some very sensitive foreign policy questions,” Berteau said.

U.S. commanders responsible for environmental management in Europe have only recently begun to devote money to investigating and cleaning up toxic pollution on bases there. Maj. Gen. Bill Ray, chief of engineering at U.S. Army-Europe headquarters in Heidelberg, West Germany, said he spends about $25 million of his $1-billion annual budget on environmental compliance and cleanup. But he acknowledged that the sum only begins to address the very worst problems and that his environmental activities are “grossly undercapitalized.”

The Air Force spends $9 million to $10 million a year on environmental protection projects in Europe, but such a sum could easily be consumed by the cost of cleaning one medium-sized contamination site, according to environmental officials at U.S. Air Force-Europe headquarters at Ramstein Air Base in West Germany. The service spends a total of $25 million on all environmental activities outside the United States, according to Air Force officials in Washington.

Advertisement

The Air Force’s current worst known site in West Germany--extensive jet fuel contamination of ground water at Rhine-Main Air Base near Frankfurt--will cost an estimated $15 million and take at least five years to clean up, officials said. Bonn and Washington are negotiating the question of who pays the bill.

Lt. Col. John R. Mullans of the Army Corps of Engineers, in charge of environmental activities at the huge Kaiserslautern complex of Army installations in West Germany, said there are dozens of known and suspected sites of chemical contamination at “K-town’s” 16 separate facilities.

Many of the hot spots are motor pool areas where used oils and chemical cleaning solvents were simply dumped on unpaved ground for decades, contaminating soil and likely polluting ground water. Mullans stated flatly that the Army does not have the money to clean up the sites--or even to pave most of the motor pools--"given the current funding situation.”

In another example of how current budget problems contribute to environmental degradation abroad, Kaiserslautern was scheduled to get an approved storage facility to handle hazardous wastes until they can be safely disposed of at licensed German dumps or sent back to the United States for burial. But funding for the facility--and several others like it in Europe and elsewhere--has been eliminated.

Advertisement

“I’ve had some stuff sitting around for two years,” Mullans said. “I now have no clear way to get rid of contaminated soil. I’ve got mounds of it just sitting on slabs.” U.S. law prohibits storage of toxic waste for more than 90 days.

Third World Problems

The military’s record in Western Europe, given the relatively high environmental awareness among governments and publics there, raises troubling questions about its behavior in less developed regions. U.S. forces have operated on a large scale for years in such places as South Korea, the Philippines, Central America and Southeast Asia, where environmental regulation is embryonic at best.

In the few instances when environmental issues have emerged in these parts of the world, the news has been bad.

Advertisement

Public health officials in Guam discovered that the Air Force had dumped large quantities of the cleaning solvent trichloroethylene (TCE), a suspected human carcinogen, onto the ground and into storm drains, contaminating the water table that supplies three-quarters of the Pacific island’s population with drinking water. Tests showed TCE levels at some points in the aquifer to be six times the permissible limit.

Investigators found that the Air Force had 20 suspected contaminated sites on the small island, a U.S. territory, while the Navy had at least seven and possibly 34 sites. The Navy’s illegal dumping and improper handling of toxic wastes contaminated soil at the Naval Complex on Guam and polluted the shoreline and ocean, the General Accounting Office found.

The situation may be worse in the Philippines, where the United States maintains two huge military installations, Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base.

An Air Force official in Washington, questioned about environmental compliance at Clark, said there is no legal mandate to assess ecological damage on the sprawling base and no such survey has been done. He added: “We comply with host country laws. In the Philippines, there are none, so we are not in violation of any.”

Advertisement

Said Berteau: “There is no reason to believe that the activities at Subic were any better than at U.S. facilities” in this country. Comparable Navy yards in the United States are among the worst sites on the Superfund list.

“If there’s a horror story out there,” Berteau said, “Subic may be it.”

With the threat of a Soviet-led invasion of Western Europe evaporating and the U.S. defense budget contracting, the United States is planning to close dozens of bases in Europe and return thousands of troops, tanks and aircraft to America. The United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies must now wrestle with the delicate questions of how much pollution the departing U.S. forces caused and who should pay to repair it.

“When the threat was perceived to be high, we could do virtually anything,” said David Lange, chief of intergovernment relations for the U.S. Army in Europe. Now, he said, European governments are beginning to demand compliance with their environmental laws and insist that the United States shoulder the cost of returning military facilities to safe and usable condition.

Advertisement

“Clearly, there has been a double standard when it comes to overseas projects,” said David Wirth, a former State Department attorney now on the staff of the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council.

“There is always a severe foreign policy risk in that. We want to maintain good relations with countries where we had bases and are now turning them over. To hand over environmental problems we wouldn’t tolerate ourselves is a ripe area for a foreign policy crisis,” he said.

The German people are just now becoming aware of the extent of lasting damage caused by the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops based in West Germany since the end of the World War II.

There are currently 255,000 American troops stationed at about 1,000 installations in West Germany.

Advertisement

“The Americans, they see Germany as a U.S. military-industrial laboratory,” said Olaf Achilles, founder of a small organization in Bonn that monitors the environmental behavior of the United States, West Germany and other NATO militaries.

“Every German environmental law exempts the military, and the local authorities know very little about what goes on on U.S. bases. Our government is so stupid and blind to all this,” Achilles said.

The 28-year-old urban planner noted the environmental record of the military in the United States as documented by the Defense Environmental Restoration Program. “Now they know what they’ve done wrong in the United States,” Achilles said. “They’ve done much more wrong outside of the United States.”

West Germans Upset

Advertisement

Another West German citizen, Wilma Herzog of nearby Gerolstein, expressed disappointment that the United States, where she lived for 12 years, has treated the German people and the German countryside with such apparent disregard for so long.

“I feel sadness and shock that America has such a dark side,” said Herzog, 55, who is organizing a citizens group to address low-level flying and other military intrusions.

“They are destroying the environment and torturing the people,” Herzog said. “I thought the Americans were smarter than this. I thought the Americans were better than this.”


Advertisement