Toxic Chemicals at McGuire AFB: Sens. Menendez and Lautenberg Demand Answers, Seek to Protect Public Health

Toxic Chemicals at McGuire AFB: Sens. Menendez and Lautenberg Demand Answers, Seek to Protect Public Health

Menendez, Lautenberg, Mikulski, Cardin, Bill Nelson call on Defense officials to explain why EPA regulations have been ignored; Menendez, Lautenberg and Nelson also ask GAO to investigate

Washington - The Washington Post yesterday reported on a battle between the Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency over the cleanup of toxic chemicals on three military bases across the country, including McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. The EPA is concerned that the chemicals pose "imminent and substantial" threats to both the health of nearby residents and to the environment, but the Pentagon has refused to abide by the law, and will not accede to the EPA's cleanup orders.

In response, Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) are demanding answers from the Pentagon on its lack of willingness to clean up the potentially-cancer causing chemicals that it released into the ground and groundwater. Additionally, Senators Menendez, Lautenberg and Nelson have requested that the Government Accountability Office investigate the Pentagon's lack of compliance.

Senator Menendez said: "People who happen to live near a military base must be given the peace of mind that the ground they walk on and the water they drink is free of toxic, cancer-causing chemicals. It seems that the Department of Defense is trying to avoid its cleanup responsibilities or is more interested in winning a Washington turf battle than the health of our citizens, and that is simply outrageous. We need an official investigation as well as direct answers from the Secretary of Defense to better explain exactly why residents of New Jersey and elsewhere are being put at risk."

Senator Lautenberg said: "We need to protect the communities in and around McGuire Air Force Base from dangerous chemicals. The Pentagon cannot ignore the potential health and environmental threats of the chemical contaminants in the water and soil surrounding McGuire and other bases. I will fight to ensure the Pentagon and the EPA protect our residents and clean up these sites."

Senator Mikulski said: "This issue affects not only Fort Meade, McGuire Air Force Base and Tyndall Air Force Base - but the thousands of people living, working, praying and playing on base and in nearby communities. I am very disappointed in the Defense Department's (DOD) lack of response to the EPA's orders. We need to cut through the red tape and make sure that this clean up is conducted in the sunshine," said Senator Mikulski. "I urge the DOD to respond to our inquiry - but more importantly - to remove the chokepoints holding up this important process."

Senator Cardin, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said: "The Department of Defense is an important part of many communities across the country, like Ft. Meade, and they must be a responsible neighbor. DOD is not above the law and is not exempt from EPA regulations. The sites outlined in the Washington Post article pose an immediate hazard to the health and safety of Americans, and I urge the DOD to take immediate steps to comply with EPA's cleanup efforts."

Senator Nelson said: "The Pentagon cannot just pick and choose which federal laws apply to them. We need to get to the bottom of this and if they don't comply with the EPA then Congress may have to step in."

Under law, the EPA Administrator has final say in environmental disputes with other federal departments and agency, such as this one.

McGuire AFB was added to the Superfund's National Priorities List (NPL) in 1999. There, the DOD has found toxins including PCBs, jet fuel, pesticides, volatile compounds, and TCE. TCE, in particular, is a carcinogen known for seeping into drinking water.

PDF of letter to DOD: http://menendez.senate.gov/pdf/063008LettertoSecretaryGates.pdf

PDF of letter to GAO: http://menendez.senate.gov/pdf/063008GAOletteronpollutioncleanup.pdf

Text of letter to DOD:
June 30, 2008


The Honorable Robert Gates
Secretary of Defense
U.S. Department of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington DC, 20460


Dear Secretary Gates:

We are alarmed by recent reports that the Pentagon is obstructing efforts to clean up pollution at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, Fort Meade in Maryland, and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

Your efforts to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from overseeing the cleanup of toxic pollution at all three locations could endanger public health and harm the environment. This is unacceptable, and we urge you to rethink your strategy.

The EPA has found that pollutants which "present an imminent and substantial danger to the public health or welfare" have been released or are about to be released. For instance, at McGuire AFB the Department of Defense (DOD) has found toxins including PCBs, jet fuel, pesticides, volatile compounds, and TCE. TCE, in particular, is a carcinogen known for seeping into drinking water. Investigations at the Fort George G. Meade site revealed contaminants including solvents, pesticides, PCBs, heavy metals, waste fuels and waste oils as well as unexploded ordnance.

The Department of Defense has known about these problems for over 20 years. These sites have been listed as Superfund sites for almost 10 years. Yet the department has failed to act in an aggressive fashion to address these issues. Instead recent actions suggest an apparent attempt to minimize the problem, with the department going so far as to undermine efforts to set TCE limits for drinking water.

The EPA understands the hazards posed to the residents of our home states. To their credit, they realized that the DOD's "voluntary cleanup" was simply a delay tactic, telling the Washington Post: "Under DOD's management, some of these sites have languished for years, with limited or no cleanup" ("Pentagon Fights EPA on Pollution Cleanup," June 30, 2008). As a result, the EPA issued "final orders" to develop a remediation plan and schedule.

The Department of Defense appears to be refusing to recognize the law, and has denied the EPA's authority by refusing to sign the final orders. According to reports, you are going so far as to ask the Department of Justice to challenge the EPA and the Office of Management and Budget to intervene. The intent of the law and of Congress is clear: the EPA has authority over the DOD in cleanup disputes.

Other Federal Agencies have had no problem understanding the law, and have signed similar final orders. Indeed, numerous military installations are included on the Superfund list and many of them have signed final orders in the past. Current reports that the Department is failing to abide by the law and past practice in the responsible cleanup of hazardous waste sites are deeply troubling.

We would like to know why your department is endangering public health, and we would like an immediate reply. We would like to know:

• Why is the DOD refusing to sign the EPA's final orders?
• Why has such little progress been made on cleaning up these sites?
• What has the DOD requested from the Department of Justice and OMB?
• Why has the DOD resisted EPA efforts to set pollution standards for perchlorate and TCE?
• When will clean up at these three sites be completed?

These concerns are not limited to the three bases in our home states, but have arisen at another 12 Superfund sites and at thousands of bases throughout the country. The Department of Defense appears willing to go to great lengths to avoid these cleanups.

We impress upon you that health and lives of Americans are at stake, and urge you to act immediately.

Sincerely Yours,

ROBERT MENENDEZ FRANK R. LAUTENBERG
United States Senator United States Senator

BENJAMIN L. CARDIN BILL NELSON
United States Senator United States Senator

BARBARA A. MIKULSKI
United States Senator

CC:

The Honorable Stephen Johnson The Honorable Michael Mukasey
Administrator Attorney General
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency U.S. Department of Justice
1200 Pennsylvania Ave NW 950 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington DC 20301-1000 Washington, DC 20530


The Honorable Jim Nussle
Director
Office of Management and Budget
1650 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Eisenhower Executive Office Building #252
Washington, DC 20503


Text of letter to GAO:

June 30, 2008


Gene Dodaro,
Acting Comptroller General of the United States
Government Accountability Office
441 G St., NW
Washington, DC 20548


Dear Comptroller Dodaro:

We are writing to express our grave concern over recent reports that the Department of Defense (DOD) is refusing to sign final orders issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clean up toxic chemicals dumped around McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, Fort Meade in Maryland, and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida ("Pentagon Fights EPA on Pollution Cleanup," The Washington Post, June 30, 2008). We ask that you begin an investigation into this apparent disregard of not only the EPA's statutory authority to enforce such action, but also public health and safety.

These bases are all listed as Superfund sites, meaning that the chemicals dumped around these bases pose "present an imminent and substantial danger to the public health or welfare." Some of the chemicals in question are known to cause cancer or other serious health problems, yet DOD has failed to act aggressively as they slowly seep into the soil and drinking water aquifers, threatening environmental problems for generations to come.

DOD has claimed that it is voluntarily cleaning up all three sites. EPA has the legal authority and practical expertise to assess DOD's efforts, and has deemed them insufficient. Rather than working with EPA to determine what more could be done to protect public health and safety, DOD has blocked EPA at every turn, refusing to recognize the law and challenging EPA's authority.

As a result, EPA has been forced to issue a final order, which legal experts recognize as their most potent enforcement tool. Such an order requires a polluter to follow the EPA's recommendation for cleanup. Other governmental agencies, including NASA and the Department of Energy, have previously complied with EPA's final orders. DOD itself has signed final orders in the past, but refuses to do so now.

We urge you to conduct an immediate investigation into the DOD's refusal to sign the EPA's final orders regarding the pollution at McGuire Air Force Base, Tyndall Air Force Base, and Fort Meade. Specifically, we hope that you will review whether DOD has failed to comply with federal law, and what needs to be done to ensure the DOD cooperates with the EPA in future final orders.

Thank you for your attention to this issue, and we look forward to your response.

Sincerely,


ROBERT MENENDEZ
United States Senator

FRANK R. LAUTENBERG
United States Senator

BILL NELSON
United States Senator

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