Op-Ed: Virginia’s contaminated army bases are increasing environmental risks to surrounding communities

Over the past hundred years, the US Army’s improper use and disposal of toxic chemicals has taken a significant environmental toll, with long-lasting consequences for unsuspecting military personnel and civilians. Largely due to the lack of awareness of long-term risks at the time, countless troops, loved ones and neighboring communities were exposed to a plethora of dangerous substances that we now know can produce debilitating side effects and deadly diseases.

While the Department of Defense (DoD) recognizes the level of contamination at its military facilities, it has taken limited action to effectively address such issues or assist those affected. For states like Virginia, the inaction of the Department of Defense inadvertently contributes to a dominant pattern of environmental discrimination that overwhelmingly affects historically underserved minority communities that are disproportionately exposed to toxic stresses.

The military’s long history of deadly toxins

Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, which served as a showcase for the US Army’s extensive contamination problems, housed approximately 1 million soldiers and their accompanying families from 1953 to 1987. During this time they were unknowingly exposed to large amounts of volatile organic compounds resulting from decomposing degreasers, solvents, oil and other industrial chemicals.

Tests on the base’s premises have found over 60 hazardous compounds at concentrations up to 3,400 times the reasonable safety limits, including carcinogens such as benzene, trihalomethanes, vinyl chloride, trichlorethylene and perchlorethylene. Per/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “Forever Chemicals” due to their resilient molecular structure, have also been identified in large quantities on the base since the Army has been using Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) in training since the early 1970’s scenarios and to extinguish difficult fires.

Prolonged exposure to such chemical hazards has been linked to several forms of cancer (liver, kidney, testicles), thyroid problems, developmental disabilities in children, impaired reproduction and even miscarriage. Camp Lejeune’s extensive problems earned it designation as a Superfund site in 1989, with ongoing cleanup projects that have allowed the base to remain operational despite traces of pollutants uncovered during regular reviews to this day.

PFAS compounds pose a clear environmental threat as they do not degrade naturally and can easily contaminate sources of drinking water. PFAS contamination has been confirmed at over 700 bases in the US, and a recent study shows that nearly 3,500 active and inactive military installations are believed to be affected.

Environmental racism and PFAS in Virginia

Discriminatory redlining practices, common in the early to mid-20th century, resulted in significant undervaluation of land in minority neighborhoods; As a result, such areas became magnets for industrial plants, transportation routes, landfill sites, army bases, ports, and other sources of pollution. The increased environmental stress suffered by vulnerable ethnic communities is better known as “environmental racism”.

In addition to existing issues with higher levels of lead in drinking water and risks associated with climate change, vulnerable communities in Virginia are also grappling with PFAS contaminants from multiple military sources. For reference, in 2016 the EPA produced a 70 parts per trillion (ppt) non-binding health advisory for PFOS and PFOA, the main PFAS compounds found in AFFF.

Langley Air Force Base (2,225,000 ppt) is Virginia’s most contaminated base and the fourth most contaminated in the country. Norfolk Naval Ship Yard (29,700 ppt) and NASA Wallops Flight Facility (24,870 ppt). Currently, 11 army bases in the state are confirmed to be contaminated, with 20 other military sites suspected and 9 already classified as superfunds.

While the Department of Defense has recognized the worrying level of PFAS contamination and has vowed to address the problem, cleanup has not begun at any of the 50 hardest-hit bases in the US, including the heavily contaminated facilities in Virginia. During the Trump era, the Department of Defense demonstrated a blatant disregard for public health after secretly incinerating more than 20 million pounds of AFFF in the US and spreading airborne PFAS to neighboring racially diverse communities. On average, African Americans and Hispanics are exposed to 56%-63% more air pollutants than they contribute.

Confrontation with ecological and social injustice

A study conducted by the Virginia Department of Health found PFAS at several water works across the state; However, the results were small in scale due to legal restrictions and insufficient funding, drastically limiting sampling to just 50 sites out of 2,500. While several states have adopted standards for PFAS in drinking water that are at or below the 2016 EPA recommendations, Virginia has yet to enact such regulations.

Often lacking the resources to directly confront polluters and their supporters, vulnerable communities rely heavily on state and federal institutions to take action to address the toxic legacy of environmental racism. Fortunately, some cautious but positive developments in recent years have provided encouraging signs for reform.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) aims to phase out AFFF from military use and fund PFAS cleanup efforts by October 2024, and the Biden administration’s Justice40 program aims to divert 40% of future climate investments into vulnerable ones to steer communities that are exposed to high environmental stresses. In 2022, the Honoring Our PACT Act was passed with massive bipartisan support, providing improved healthcare benefits and compensation from the VA to those harmed by toxins at contaminated army bases.

Most promisingly, the EPA aims to regulate harmful PFAS compounds at the federal level via Superfund legislation and establish enforceable levels in the near future. To that end, it has drastically reduced its lifetime health recommendation for PFOA and PFOS from 70 ppt to just 0.004 and 0.02 ppt, respectively, to better reflect the dangers these common pollutants pose even at extremely low concentrations.

Jonathan Sharp

Jonathan Sharp is CFO of Environmental Litigation Group PC, based in Birmingham, Alabama, a law firm specializing in toxic exposure cases, helping individuals harmed by toxic chemicals on US Army bases.