States Backing Off Enforcement of Toxic Military Site Cleanups

October 1, 2008

The US military has created at least 31,487 toxic sites at 4,624 military facilities or properties. Many of these have been cleaned up to some degree over the past few decades, but 7,056 still haven't had any cleanup, nor is there an accepted cleanup plan in place, according to the Sept. 18, 2008, testimony of Wayne Arny (703-695-2880), Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, before the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee.

Many of these sites remain toxic in part because they're tough to clean up. But recent legal interpretations of agreements between the Dept. of Defense and individual states have contributed to the lack of effective action at some of these sites, according to testimony of others at that hearing.

The main bone of contention is language in a legal agreement called a Defense and State Memorandum of Agreement (DSMOA), which has been used in one form or another for several decades. As part of a DSMOA, DoD reimburses states for their work providing oversight of cleanups at DoD sites. There is a signed DSMOA with 48 states, 4 territories, and the District of Columbia, with Iowa the latest to join the ranks, in 2008. Arkansas, North Dakota, and the US Virgin Islands have yet to sign a DSMOA.

Since 2006, DoD has been interpreting some of the language in the DSMOAs in ways that limit state oversight and enforcement of some site cleanups, according to a Sept. 28, 2007, report prepared by the Environmental Council of the States. ECOS says that interpretations also have varied from state to state:

Many states now fear that any enforcement of DoD site cleanups will result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state. As a result, they are backing off their efforts to get sites cleaned up, and people and the environment remain exposed to an array of toxic contaminants.

The ECOS report documents many of the states with known problems of one kind or another. They include AL, CA, CO, IL, MA, ME, MI, MN, MO, MT, NE, NV, OH, OR, RI, SC, SD, UT, VA, and WA.

In addition, Alaska has had several problem sites in the past couple of years, such as Taku Gardens at Fort Wainwright, and radar and communications sites in the Kuguru area, according to Jennifer Roberts, Federal Facilities Program Manager with the Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation, 907-269-7553.

Maryland has also had its difficulties, at contaminated sites at facilities such as Fort Meade, Fort Detrick, and more than 100 formerly used defense sites, as Shari Wilson, Secretary of the Maryland Dept. of the Environment, 410-537-3084, testified at the hearing.

Other states may also be having problems. A starting point for finding out more details in each state is the state's environment and/or health department:

Lawyers have been squabbling over the DoD's new interpretation of DSMOA language for a couple of years, with one sticking point being that DoD says it hasn't changed its interpretations. There does not appear to be an end in sight. Congressional action may spur the process. Barring that, a more cooperative relationship with state governments in the next administration, or changes in DoD personnel, might alter the picture. Lawsuits by some states are also a possibility.

Other testimony at the Senate committee hearing covered problems that the US EPA is having in getting DoD to clean up some of its sites. In some of those cases, DoD is insisting that EPA's cleanup standards are too strict, or are otherwise unacceptable to DoD. Technically, EPA has the final say, but can't sue DoD, and DoD is contesting that EPA has the upper hand, according to Lyndsey Layton's article about the hearing in the Sept. 19, 2008, Washington Post:

Other resources include:

  • ECOS-DoD Sustainability Work Group: co-chairs Bill Ross (North Carolina Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources, 919-715-4102) and Alex Beehler (DoD, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Environment, Safety, and Occupational Health, 703-571-9066).
  • Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials: Dania Rodriquez, 202-624-5973.
  • Dept. of Defense, Maureen Sullivan, 703-695-7957; Media, Chris Isleib, 703-695-6294.https://environment.usace.army.mil/what_we_do/dsmoa/ andhttps://www.denix.osd.mil/portal/page/portal/denix/state/DSMOA [Ed. Note: Browsers going to these will display messages that the security certificates accompanying these government sites are invalid and deceptive. TipSheet never advises journalists to trust the federal government; however, by overriding all the warnings from our browser we were able to visit the sites.]