Military Bases in Massachusetts, Significant Contributors to Environmental Racism Among Communities of Color
Most people of color have no choice but to live near pollution hotspots such as industrial sites, toxic landfills, and military bases.
Environmental racism, which occurs when communities of color are disproportionately exposed to harmful pollutants, is a worldwide phenomenon. What has been fueling environmental racism over the past four decades is poverty, inaccessibility of affordable land or rent, globalization, and lack of power to fight corporations. As a result, most people of color have no choice but to live near pollution hotspots such as truck routes, industrial sites, ports, toxic landfills, and military bases. Massachusetts is no exception when it comes to environmental racism.
With the rise of the suburbs, white people left the highly polluted cities and industrial areas. Meanwhile, highways, industry, and municipal solid waste sites were built in areas inhabited by communities of color that do not have enough resources to oppose their construction. Air pollution inequity has recently been growing in the state. Even though nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter concentrations became lower throughout Massachusetts, toxic exposure remains high among Hispanic and Black communities.
The most prevalent air pollutants impacting the health of communities of color include sulfur dioxide, particle matter, carbon monoxide, ground-level ozone, and nitrogen dioxide. Most stem from combustion, such as car, train, or bus engines, waste combustion, and industrial processes. However, as far as water pollution is concerned, the activity occurring on military bases has significantly contributed to it. Some of the most hazardous agents found in the water disadvantaged communities drink are arsenic, lead, pesticides, nitrates, and perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
How Military Bases Have Been Promoting Environmental Racism in Massachusetts
The drinking water at roughly 700 military bases across the U.S. was severely contaminated with PFAS and many other toxic agents. Exposure to PFAS for several months or longer can result in kidney cancer, leukemia, prostate cancer, lymphoma, and bladder cancer. The source of these chemicals on military bases nationwide is firefighters using the fire suppressant AFFF, whose formula was devised in 1966 by the U.S. Navy and the 3M company. This firefighting foam may contain up to 98% PFAS, so it should come as no surprise that it can wreak havoc on the environment. For decades, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been striving to clean up military bases throughout the country of PFAS and other toxic agents.
Massachusetts has three military bases where PFAS and other harmful substances were found lurking in drinking water. To comprehend the extent of this problem, it is very important to acknowledge that the safe exposure limit for PFAS in drinking water is 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Built in 1942, Hanscom Air Force Base is in Bedford, with some areas covering parts of the nearby towns of Lincoln, Concord, and Lexington. The "forever chemicals" level at this military installation was 44,360 ppt in 2018, which exceeded the safe exposure limit by over 630 times. Hanscom Air Force Base was deemed a Superfund site in the 1980s but is still active today, with over 689,000 service members living there.
The EPA discovered more possible sources of contamination at this military base, including the inadequate disposal of waste oils, solvents, paint thinners, and degreasers, toxic landfills, sludge disposal, and petroleum releases. Some of the cleanup activities the agency has performed at Hanscom Air Force Base are the removal of contaminated sediments and landfill debris, construction of a groundwater collection, removal of petroleum-contaminated soils from various hotspot locations, and containment of three landfill areas. Nevertheless, remedy implementation, operational maintenance, and monitoring are ongoing.
Another military base in Massachusetts whose environment, particularly the groundwater, was heavily polluted is Westover Air Reserve Base near the city of Springfield. It was established in 1939, and the greatest PFAS level ever measured at the site was 360,000 ppt, which eclipsed the safe exposure limit by approximately 5,142 times. Westover Air Reserve Base is home to the U.S. Air Force's largest cargo aircraft, and over 2,700 military and civilian workers currently live there. They are at risk of toxic exposure, as PFAS are still present in the drinking water of the military base, though in lower concentrations.
Finally, another military base where PFAS contamination occurred is Naval Air Station South Weymouth, with a level of 256,000 ppt "forever chemicals" measured in 2018. It was founded in 1941 and was also added to the Superfund sites list by the EPA in 1994. Naval Air Station South Weymouth, which is no longer in use, was in South Weymouth. The mission of this military facility was to train Navy service members for the forthcoming World War II. Other hazardous agents were found contaminating the military base, such as polychlorinated biphenyl, arsenic, dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, and lead.
All these toxic agents can easily find their way into groundwater and the wells of the surrounding neighborhoods, which, in most cases, are comprised of disenfranchised communities. They can also end up in the food supply and soil, which only worsens the extent of exposure among communities of color. PFAS are present in the blood of 97% of Americans, as these substances have become extremely common in the environment, and AFFF is a major culprit. Up to 1.2 million children in the U.S. have dangerous lead concentrations in their blood, a toxic metal that can cause autism, cognitive damage, ADHD, learning disabilities, behavioral abnormalities, and speech impairment.
Camp Lejeune, A Military Base Mirroring the Issue of Toxic Contamination in Massachusetts
Located in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and built in 1942, Camp Lejeune is a military base whose initial mission was to train Marines for the upcoming World War II. It is still operational today. Nevertheless, for almost 35 years, it was a tremendous pollution hotspot, with drinking water containing industrial solvents such as trichloroethylene, benzene, vinyl chloride, and perchloroethylene. Between 1953 and 1987, roughly one million people training, working, or living at Camp Lejeune were exposed to these chemicals from drinking water. Only in 1982 was the issue of water pollution discovered.
Two of the eight water distribution plants at Camp Lejeune were found to contain solvents in excessive levels. At Hadnot Point, the trichloroethylene level was 1,400 parts per billion (ppb) when the acceptable limit is only 5 ppb. The perchloroethylene level at Tarawa Terrace was 215 ppb when the safe limit is also just 5 ppb. After 1967, PFAS contamination also occurred at Camp Lejeune, with the highest level of "forever chemicals" being 172,000 ppt. ABC One-Hour Cleaners was responsible for releasing industrial solvents, but also the military, as service members would use and dispose of hazardous products improperly after cleaning their weapons.
What Is the Military Doing to Address Environmental Racism?
On September 20, 2022, the Pentagon announced that the U.S. military would shift to fire suppressants without PFAS and no longer use AFFF except for emergency situations such as hydrocarbon fires and aviation accidents. Nonetheless, it will only be in January next year that it will reveal the specifications for PFAS-free alternatives. By October, the new firefighting foams the military buys will have to meet a series of requirements, and by 2024, the Department of Defense must stop all PFAS-containing foam use.
If AFFF use ceases entirely, PFAS will no longer contaminate the environment. Undoubtedly, this is a huge step forward for the military. Both service members and the nearby communities will benefit from a cleaner environment, and their health burden will decrease substantially. While industrial solvents and heavy metals are relatively easy to clean up, not the same applies to PFAS. The complete removal of these substances from military bases by the EPA will take several more decades, so there will still be a slight risk of toxic exposure.
About the Author
Jonathan Sharp is Chief Financial Officer at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. His responsibilities include case evaluation, financial analysis, and managing the firm assets. The law firm, headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, specializes in toxic exposure, assisting veterans whose health was impacted by toxic exposure on military bases.