MAC: Mines and Communities

Tanks & Toxics, Planes and Pollution - The Ecology of a Military Build-Up

Published by MAC on 2003-02-15

To what degree are mining and metals production dependent on the war industry - and financed out of military budgets? What are the specific health and environmental toll impacts of processing metals into weapons or weapons delivery systems? The following article is a contribution to data which is woefully lacking.

Tanks & Toxics, Planes and Pollution - The Ecology of a Military Build-Up

Multinational Monitor (Washington DC) - 'The Business of War' - Volume 24 - Numbers 1 & 2

January / February 2003

By William Kelly

Late last summer in the Mojave desert, a thousand employees of Northrop Grumman gathered to celebrate their good fortune and hopes for the future at U.S. Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, outside Los Angeles. The cause for the festivities was the opening of the company's Antelope Valley Manufacturing Center, where in the coming decade 1,000 new workers will join the ranks of the 1,200 company personnel who already labor each day at Plant 42.

"The dedication of the Antelope Valley Manufacturing Center represents a milestone," Gary Ervin, sector vice president for Northrop Grumman's Integrated Systems Air Combat Systems unit, told the assembled employees and dignitaries. After more than a decade of shrinkage, Northrop Grumman and other defense contractors are growing again.

As the ceremony drew to a close, the doors drew open on the giant hangar in which the crowd was gathered to reveal prototypes and full-scale models of new aircraft Northrop Grumman will build for the U.S. military. Parked in the gleaming sun were the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Global Hawk, an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, similar to those which have made headlines for their recent feats in the Middle East.

Northrop Grumman hopes to help build 3,000 new F-35s for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and the British Royal Air Force and Navy. Meanwhile, Northrop is busy working on low-volume initial models of the Global Hawk, expected to enter full-scale production in 2004. The new aircraft are part of a major "transformation program" by the Defense Department aimed at enabling the military to deter and preemptively strike forces inimical to U.S. interests around the world. "Over the next five years, we plan to invest more than $136 billion in transformation technologies and systems," says Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense.

The transformation -- which will involve a defense buildup that rivals, if not surpasses, the Star Wars legacy of President Ronald Reagan -- is being funded by dramatic increases in defense procurement appropriations. In the rush to adjourn for the campaign trail last fall, Congress funded the federal government, except the Pentagon, with a stop-gap measure. Lawmakers, however, found the time to enact a full-year money bill for the Department of Defense that provides $355.1 billion in fiscal year 2003, an increase of 12 percent, or $37.5 billion from 2002. Congress boosted systems procurement funding by $10.7 billion, or 17 percent, and research and development funding by $9.9 billion, or 20 percent. "Many research and development programs today, if successful, will place increased demands on procurement in the out years," Wolfowitz notes.

Another driving force behind the expansion of the defense sector is that in the war on terrorism the Bush Administration has lifted the sanctions on arms exports to a number of countries, says Rachel Stohl, senior analyst for the Center for Defense Information. These include Armenia, Azerbaijan, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Yugoslavia. "The United States is more willing than ever to sell or give away weapons to countries that have pledged assistance in the global war on terror," according to Stohl.

The spending boom, coupled with loosened export restrictions, represents a bonanza for defense contractors like Northrop Grumman. However, an unintended consequence may be an increase in toxic emissions and environmental pollution, particularly in communities surrounding the thousands of plants involved in defense manufacturing nationwide. The Cold War defense build-up has littered the United States -- and the world -- with toxic hot spots. Nuclear waste, discarded fuel, chemicals and unexploded munitions left by U.S. military operations have contaminated groundwater and created toxic dumps in hundreds of places. Even as clean up at many of these sites stagnates, a new military build up threatens to replicate much of the environmental degradation of an earlier era.

Superfund Legacy

"The environmental impacts of the military and military contractors are extreme," says Steve Taylor, national organizer for the Military Toxics Project in Lewiston, Maine. "They're working with toxic materials." In addition to toxic solvents and metals commonly used in the civilian manufacturing industries, Taylor notes that defense contractors use radioactive material, such as depleted uranium, and explosive compounds and propellants.

"Yet public debates about the military almost invariably focus on the need for a strong defense," he says. "There's generally almost no discussion of the costs, including the impact on the health and environment of surrounding communities."

Environmental contamination from defense hardware manufacturing dots the U.S. landscape. While much of the contamination occurred before Congress enacted landmark environmental statutes, the pollution continued after those laws were passed.

The sites range from high profile Superfund cleanup projects, such as the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, 10 miles from downtown Denver, where bombs containing the nerve agent sarin were found buried, to less well known sites, such as Ordnance Products, Inc., in North East, Maryland, where the company made grenades for the Vietnam War and buried the waste, including solvents, acids and fuses.

In Concord, Massachusetts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) late in 2000 listed as a Superfund site a 46-acre area used by Nuclear Metals, Inc. to produce armor-piercing depleted uranium rounds for the Army. Until 1985, according to the EPA, the company discharged waste into an unlined holding basin. Consequently, groundwater beneath the facility, now known as Starmet, is contaminated with volatile organic compounds and radioactive uranium and thorium. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality also has detected depleted uranium in surface water around the facility.

"It's a Superfund site, but that was due to a lot of organizing on the part of people in Concord, who want the site cleaned up," says area resident Carol Dwyer, who is active in the local grassroots group Citizen's Research and Environment Watch. While the groundwater contamination presents a potential future threat, the 30-year resident of Concord says that any past exposure of residents to airborne radioactive dust from the plant remains unknown. "I have no idea what my exposure from inhalation was," she says. "You just pray."

Richard Clapp, a Boston University epidemiologist who was the first director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry from 1980 to 1989, studied the incidence of cancer in Concord. His report found that the cancer incidence in Concord was double that in other areas of the state. In a later study, Drew Coleman, professor of geologic sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found depleted uranium in bark samples taken several kilometers downwind from the site. The concentration increased in the bark samples closer to the plant. In unveiling the study at a meeting of the Geological Society of America in Boston late in 2001, Coleman said that it showed the uranium only could have been deposited in the bark as airborne particles.

California has traditionally been the number one state for defense contracts, most of which are awarded to aerospace firms and other companies operating in the Los Angeles area, and the state has paid a high environmental price.

In California, at least 23 of the 104 federal Superfund sites are military related. A number of defense plant sites not listed under Superfund also are being cleaned up, including the Santa Susana Field Laboratory operated by Rocketdyne, now a subsidiary of Boeing and formerly operated by Rockwell International. Residents in the affluent Simi Valley area around the facility, which lies near the border of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, have sued over ill health due to radioactive contamination.

Residents filed similar litigation over chemical pollution at a Lockheed plant in Burbank, which was closed in 1991 and turned into a big box retail center. After Lockheed merged with Martin Marietta to form Lockheed Martin, the firm entered a $5 million settlement with 300 plaintiffs who claimed pollution from the Burbank plant made them sick.

In 1990, Lockheed paid the largest fine in the history of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the smog control agency for greater Los Angeles, for violating air pollution regulations, including 750 counts of emitting excess volatile organic compounds from spray-painting operations and 6,000 counts of failing to keep adequate records. The $1 million air pollution fine came just months after the corporation paid a $1.5 million fine to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for allegedly violating workplace safety standards on 440 occasions.

Northrop, before it merged with Grumman, also paid major penalties to the air district in Los Angeles for excess emissions, including $450,000 in 1991 and $110,000 in 1988. The 1991 penalty settled more than 500 separate violations at the company's plant in Pico Rivera, near Los Angeles, including 70 counts of exceeding limits on emissions of solvent fumes and, in a rush to produce, installing polluting equipment without taking time to obtain needed permits from the local air district.

California dreaming

Many defense contractors contend that the past will not be prologue in the next buildup. Northrop spokesperson Bob Bishop, for instance, says that all defense contracts have "environmental restrictions" that require companies to abide by all applicable regulations. "The other side of it is that we always meet the environmental standards," he says.

However, a review of recent enforcement records available from the federal EPA casts doubt about that confident assertion. Of 13 Northrop Grumman facilities listed in the data base that have been inspected by state or federal environmental authorities in the past two years, environmental infractions were found at six. One facility -- the Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi -- was found to be a "high priority violator" of air pollution standards for a variety of pollutants, including cancer-causing compounds, such as benzene. The violations occurred at the various Northrop Grumman facilities across the nation during a period when Bishop said there had yet to be a "big ramp up" of defense production.

So what will a big ramp up bring in the form of pollution from defense plants?

"The types of pollution from plants that were operating for decades is unlikely to be produced because they were operating before there were any environmental laws," says Military Toxics Project organizer Taylor. The question of how the new defense expenditures will affect the environment is particularly poignant in California, where much of the surge in Pentagon spending will be directed. "The aerospace industry in Southern California received a massive jolt of Vitamin C," says Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. "The prospects look very good for the next few years." A high level official for the air pollution control agency in Los Angeles, home of the largest defense manufacturing complex in the nation, predicts most large aerospace companies and defense contractors will be able to increase their production and emissions without much regulatory scrutiny or public notice.

"If they were permitted at maximum levels and they maintained their permits, then they pretty much can go back to the same levels of production with the increase in defense spending," says Mohsen Nazemi, assistant deputy executive officer for the South Coast Air Quality Management District. "Most of them were optimistic business would pick up and did not let their permits expire."

A review of emissions records, which lag by some two years, shows that air pollution from defense contractors around Los Angeles declined dramatically from the heyday of Star Wars spending in the 1980s through the regional aerospace bust of the 1990s.

Northrop's plant in El Segundo is a case in point. According to available EPA data, emissions of air pollutants declined from 218,000 pounds a year in 1988 to a low of 10,577 pounds in 1999, before rising slightly in 2000.

Nearby in Hawthorne, Vought Aircraft, Northrop's subcontractor on the Global Hawk and F-14 fighter plane, decreased emissions from 1,467,490 pounds in 1988 to 23,960 in 1999. In 2000, emissions increased to 42,246 pounds.

These emission reductions tracked the decline of the defense industry in California. The number of Californians working in the aircraft industry fell from a peak of 168,000 in 1987 to 75,000 in 2000. Defense Department prime contracts awarded to California companies declined from a peak of $29.1 billion in 1985 to $17.4 billion in 1999, a real decline of 64 percent when adjusted for inflation. Contract awards then increased to $18.1 billion in 2000 and $19.9 billion in 2001. In recent months, the Defense Department has awarded major new contracts worth billions of dollars to Southern California firms to build new aircraft and electronics gear. More work is on the way.

The air district's spokesperson Sam Atwood attributes the decline in emissions at Los Angeles area aerospace plants both to rules the agency tightened in the early 1990s, but also to a decline in production. "It's a combination of the two," he says.

The district has no plans to tighten the rules substantially on pollution from Los Angeles area defense plants. Nationally, an EPA regulation on emissions already has taken effect. Observers doubt that the Bush Administration will move to further tighten rules on defense contractors, which may in fact benefit from recent relaxations of the standards for new facilities.

Chromium and beryllium

Atwood says that the aerospace companies emit compounds, such as hexavalent chromium, and solvents, such as xylene and toluene. Aerospace companies also use exotic metals, such as beryllium, because it is light, strong and flexible, qualities needed in a wide range of aircraft components, such as bushings, thermo-couplers, gyroscopes, and x-ray windows, according to Tim Takaro, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of medicine and environmental health at the University of Washington.

Workers exposed to beryllium have developed immunological lung disorders, as have family members exposed to the metal when carried home on work clothing. Hexavalent chromium is a carcinogen and many solvents used in the defense industries cause nerve system disorders, he says.

Some, according to environmental agencies, can cause cancer. "If you find these problems in workers," says Takaro, "you have the suspicion you'll find them in the community. They're like canaries in the coal mine."

Communities around defense plants that increase production in the new military boom will face more emissions of pollutants, he says, which especially could affect the health of sensitive populations, such as asthmatics who number about 5 to 7 percent of the general U.S. population, and are more numerous among some segments of the population, such as children and African Americans.

"There's a good chance for increased environmental degradation," the doctor says. "We have consistently put the environment below the military."

William J. Kelly is editor and publisher of California Environment Report. He has written about the environment for more than 20 years.

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