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Can Major Storms Exacerbate Problems at Military Contamination Sites?

by Gavin P. Smith

Hurricane Florence dealt a severe blow to the Carolinas. Not only is our organization based here, but so are several military installations that have dealt with military contamination issues. In recent news stories and inquiries, the thought occurred to us to dive deeper into how these storms impact an area’s water systems. This brought us to a significant question that has only just begun to be asked in recent years:

What affect do hurricanes and other major storm systems have on areas of contamination and how do storms exacerbate the issue to potentially spread contamination?

The concern is there and on the minds of officials, before and after Florence.

Also of concern is the sprawling Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia and Marine Corps bases at Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point in North Carolina and at Parris Island in South Carolina. The shipyard near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay dates to 1767 and contains contaminated soil and groundwater from more than two centuries’ worth of dumped hazardous chemicals. Hazards at the Marine bases include ground saturated with toxic chemicals, old paint, ash from old trash burn pits and unexploded ordnance. – Military Times

Recent stories from Florence have already highlighted a similar situation on the Cape Fear River, where a Duke Energy coal ash basin was inundated by floodwaters and threatens to send polluted waters pouring into the Cape Fear River and downstream to the ocean.

“We cannot rule out that coal ash is moving into the river,” a spokesman said recently. – Washington Post

Another coal ash pond was also threatened further inland.

The issue of leaking coal ash is particularly fraught for Duke Energy. In February 2014, a coal ash pond at its Dan River Steam Station spilled as much as 82,000 tons of waste over roughly 70 miles of the Dan River. Federal prosecutors also revealed Duke Energy had been illegally discharging pollution from coal ash dumps into nearby waterways since at least 2010. In May 2016, Duke Energy settled criminal charges for $102 million. Since then, the company has been moving coal ash from waste ponds to more secure, lined landfills. – Washington Post

In addition, hog farm waste was reported spilling into flood waters and carried downstream and into adjacent areas as a direct result of massive flooding from Florence.

The breakdown in the defenses at the Duke plant underscored how even though Hurricane Florence is over, rising river waters keep adding to the environmental mess left in the storm’s wake. There were at least 34 hog lagoons spewing feces and urine into the surrounding areas, according to state officials. Nine more were inundated by floodwaters, and 47 on the edge of overflowing. – Washington Post

The varied impacts of storm surge, floodwaters, ground saturation and more on contaminated sites from hurricanes and other large storms continue to grow based on the growing strength of storms in general. Many have called for the movement or relocation of certain vulnerable locations.

“There is an urgent need for both hog lagoons and coal ash ponds to be removed from the flood-prone areas near our rivers and lakes before the next climate change fueled superstorm hits us,” Kemp Burdette, part of a network of environmental activists protection U.S. rivers, said in a statement. – Washington Post

But what about Superfund military bases and contaminated military sites in the line of fire from hurricanes and other natural disasters?

As shown above, prime examples are available to us that heighten our concern. Let’s now apply this same perspective to military contamination. Let’s say, hypothetically, that a base is in the path of a strong hurricane making landfall in the area. What happens to chemicals like TCE, benzene, PFAS and others that may still exist in the ground, in groundwater supplies, or in above-ground storage tanks. Could these be compromised? What about the local aquifers and runoff? Could storms pose an added risk to an already contaminated military installation?

Several bases are located along the coast of the Carolinas that suffered impacts from Florence. MCAS Cherry Point, Fort Bragg, and of course, Camp Lejeune. Here’s what the USGS found near Camp Lejeune just with regard to hog farm waste.

“Satellite photographs taken of Camp Lejeune by the U.S. Geological Survey show large black splotches spilled from major rivers into the ocean. The Environmental Working Group said the photos “demonstrate the consequences of concentrating confined animal feeding operations . . . in low-lying areas along sensitive flood plains.” – Washington Post

While this example cites hog farm spillage in satellite photos, what about chemicals at the base? If storms can help introduce more contamination into our major rivers and oceans, is it not also feasible that existing chemical contamination can be spread to areas surrounding bases and base communities, extending the impacts?

Before we can answer that question, take a look at yet another example. Harmful coal ash could be impacting area rivers and waterways due to breaches caused by Hurricane Florence. Duke Energy, notorious for a major case against it for coal ash contamination impacting the health of residents in Western North Carolina, is having problems once again thanks to the recent hurricanes.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said it had several teams monitoring conditions at the Sutton facility and remaining in close contact with on-site engineers. On Friday morning, the company notified state officials of a breach of between 100 and 200 feet at the south end of Sutton Lake. State officials were using drones to monitor the conditions at the site.

Like Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds, is it possible that contaminated military bases could also spread their contamination due to storm flooding or damages?

The simple answer: Yes.

Flood waters can displace storage containers, shift hardened caps on buried or sealed off contaminant areas, penetrate or compromise liners, absorbing groundwater chemicals and moving them throughout nearby communities.

The problem is that you could see a lot of waste that was supposedly ‘under control’ getting mobilized into waterways and spreading throughout the community. – The Atlantic

Take, for example, the impacts of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and surrounding areas. Such large-scale storms can cause significant spread of contamination.

A 2009 study from Mary Fox, Ramya Chari, Beth Resnick, and Thomas Burke at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that “multiple persistent contaminants were found together in the soils and sediments sampled in Orleans Parish,” and that EPA studies of individual pollutants in soil and water understated potential health effects of cocktails of multiple chemicals at once. Subsequent studies of the Agriculture Street Landfill Superfund site found that sediments deposited around the area by Katrina and Rita contained high levels of benzo[a]pyrene, a carcinogen. – The Atlantic

Startling, isn’t it? To think that these storms can take existing contamination and mix it up into an even worse chemical soup and spread it around to nearby areas. It is even more dire when you consider the various vectors chemicals can take thanks to the threats of wind, water and debris spreading in all directions indiscriminately, with little way to track where all of it moves. Ahead of Hurricane Irma in Florida just a couple of years ago, experts were extremely concerned about Superfund sites in the path of the storm.

If these sites are not properly secured before a storm, there are a number of ways chemicals can spread. “You have a sequence of assaults—water, wind, and debris,” said Peter DeFur, a longtime Superfund cleanup consultant. “Water gets driven into places that it hadn’t been before. These changes in the distribution in force of water effect what’s going on underneath the ground.” If chemicals get in groundwater, it can be difficult to track—particularly in southeast Florida, where the geological foundation is uniquely porous limestone rather than solid rock. “All bets are off there,” DeFur said. “We have no idea where things are going.” – The New Republic

With so many chemicals causing an array of health issues, such “toxic soups” amplify the amount of potential concurrent or simultaneous health issues that could arise for those exposed.

When you are in a toxic environment, of course there’s risks. I’m not a scientist, but when you have a hurricane come through that’s moving soil and water, of course there are going to be risks. – The Atlantic

But cleanups cost money, and the EPA finds itself woefully lacking. While it may be targeting only the best prospects for remediation and reuse, their budget doesn’t even begin to cover the amount of work to cleanup all Superfund sites adequately. The Dept. of Defense has over 100+ bases on the Superfund site list right now in various stages of cleanup and remediation. With some of those located in severe weather or natural disaster zones, citizens in surrounding communities are particularly vulnerable when a storm hits.

[EPA] Superfund’s history would suggest that funding reductions lead to fewer cleanups—and cause existing sites to languish and become more and more vulnerable to disasters. People living near Superfund sites have been afraid of that exact thing. – The Atlantic

Plus, the list keeps growing, and so does the threat.

In 2012, the EPA said that nearly a third of the nation’s federal hazardous waste sites were within a 100-year floodplain (an area with a 1-in-100 chance of a flood event in any given year, according to FEMA). Five years later, the number of Superfund sites has grown, and experts almost roundly agree that FEMA’s 100-year floodplain has been rendered obsolete due to climate change. – The New Republic

Finally, we should ask ourselves: Who is responsible? In the case of Duke Energy, state officials claim that they will be held responsible.

“While the state is currently in emergency response mode, a thorough investigation of events will soon follow to ensure that Duke Energy is held responsible for any environmental impacts caused at their coal ash facilities,” Bridget Munger, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an email. – Washington Post

But will they really be held accountable? We doubt it. In recent rulings against Duke Energy for coal ash contamination, they’ve passed along the court costs and costs of clean-up by simply hiking customer power rates. This essentially negates any punishment and passes the buck back to the very people that they’ve impacted. Is that what we consider as fair justice in today’s society? Undoubtedly, Duke Energy will take the same actions again to cover their losses in this instance.

It wouldn’t be hard, then, to extrapolate the same about military contamination. Who is ultimately responsible? Is there any fair justice on the horizon? If contamination spreads even further, will our own government be held accountable? How, and by whom?

The Pentagon has stated that the problem of cleaning up toxic and hazardous waste sites at military facilities is its “largest challenge.” – DOD Envtl. Programs: Hearings Before the Readiness Subcomm., the Envtl. Restoration Panel, and the Dep’t of Energy Defense Nuclear Facilities Panel of the House Comm. on Armed Servs., 102d Cong., 1st Sess. 194 (1991) (testimony of Thomas E. Baca, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Env’t)).

Is it? Has the buck already been passed down to tax-paying citizens?

Of course it has. We are the ones who have been exposed and whose taxes fund the very government entities that caused this mess in the first place. We, too, are also paying for those very entities to clean it all up. Gives new meaning to adding insult to injury, doesn’t it?


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