US MILITARY BASES AND THE ENVIRONMENT:
A TIME FOR RESPONSIBILITY
Admiral Eugene Carroll (ret.)
Keynote Speech before the 1997 First International Conference on “US Military Toxics and Bases Clean-up, Nov. 23-26, 1997, Asian Social Institute, Manila, Philippines. This was co-sponsored and hosted by the People’s Task Force on Bases Clean-up and the Nuclear-Free Philippines Coalition. Seven (7) countries in the Asia-Pacific including Panama and Puerto Rico which host US bases were represented.
Admiral Carroll is a former Commanding Officer of the U.S. Aircraft Carrier USS Midway and the Pacific Task Force of the U.S. Navy. He also served as Commander of Southern NATO Forces in Europe. Upon retirement, he became Director of the Center for Defense Information, an organization of retired senior military officers dedicated to monitoring Pentagon weapons systems, spending and policies. He has become an active pro-peace advocate.
You have gathered here today to develop a plan to attack the problem of pollution created on military bases around the world. Yours is not an easy task for many reasons, all of which require thoughtful appraisal. Chief among the problems facing you are the problem of identifying the nature and extent of the pollution; identifying the means and resources needed to reduce or remove the pollution; and, fixing responsibility for the remedial action in polluted areas.
Before addressing these issues, let me take a few moments to discuss the genesis of these problems so that we can put our considerations in context. Early in the Cold War, President Dwight Eisenhower said, “The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without.” In this statement, he identified a very serious problem but no American official ever tried to solve it. We just went on making more guns, more bombs, more pollution, and the consequences of those we are going to address today. Their failure is evident today in global pollution produced by going too far on defense out of fear of the Soviet Union. It is their intense irrational fear, that we were all going to become communist.
Two major factors can explain why and how we went too far. The first was the global scope of the Cold War and the sense of urgency that it produced in the United States. Far more than anywhere else, America was caught up in its self-appointed role as leader of the free world effort to contain the spread of communism. These produced a network of major US Military Bases to form a ring around the Soviet Union. NATO nations hosted the European bases, while Japan, Korea and the Philippines had the honor of providing lands, sea, and air bases in the Pacific.
It is fair to note that the United States also subjected itself to massive military build-up and industrial facilities devoted to the Cold War. In a mindless, criminally negligent process, we poured resources into military expansion both at home and abroad without any regard for the environmental consequences. Pollution was ignored on the grounds that “national security” took absolute priority over all other considerations.
The second factor which describes the nature of this pollution has to do with new technologies, turned modern military forces into vast industrial enterprises which generated materials of life-threatening toxicity. These account for the horrible pollution around us today. Nuclear weapons manufacture generated the most poisonous portions of the problem. The great bulk of this material was originally confined to the United States and the Soviet Union except for the fallout from nuclear testing in the atmosphere which peaked in 1962.
Popular opposition around the world to atmospheric testing brought about the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1962. The success of a global grassroots campaign to end such testing should be an inspiration to all of us here working on pollution issues. We can take heart that an informed public working together on an international level can bring about changes at governmental levels.
Nevertheless, the manufacture of fissile material and nuclear weapons proceeded unabated. The pollution today in Russia and America are devastating. Both countries suffer major radioactive contamination in their nuclear factories which far exceeds pollution created in military bases elsewhere. In the United States, we have areas at Hanford, Washington; Rocky Flats, Colorado; Fernald, Ohio; and Savannah, Georgia which probably can never be fully remediated. They may be fenced-off forever and termed “national sacrifice zones.” The situation is as bad, or worse, in Russia today.
Just as nuclear technology produced these special problems, so did new conventional military technologies produce acute problems on military bases around the world. New munitions, new materials in aircraft and ships, new industrial materials to support these weapons systems such as metallic paints, PCBs, chemical solvents, bonding materials and synthetic lubricants all became sources of severe pollution. This factor was more serious overseas because growing civilian concern about the environment in the United States resulted in increasing military attention there to controlling the environmental threats of these new, highly toxic substances. I can recall, as commanding officer of an aircraft carrier in 1970, being closely monitored in US ports to insure proper control and disposal of waste material. This increased caution was not evident to me here in Subic Bay in 1971 where ships, our aircraft and our industrial facilities were spewing polluted materials into the air, water and soil with no regard for the short term or long term effects. I began to see then the double standard.
When you consider the intense pace of operations generated by various Cold War crises such as the Korea, and Vietnam and the Gulf Wars, it is easy to understand that environmental issues were completely ignored in the rush to meet operational commitments. Not only did we generate these materials but when we used it we were out of control. I RECALL VIVIDLY COMING TO SUBIC AND THE ENTIRE IN-PORT PERIOD BEING GIVEN WAS 24-HOUR WORKDAY ON THE SHIPS AND AIRCRAFT OF THE TASK FORCE. CUTTING, WELDING, SAND BLASTING, CORROSION CONTROL, PAINT STRIPPING, PAINTING AND TANK FLUSHING BOTH OF SHIP AND AIRCRAFT, WENT ON AROUND THE CLOCK AND THE DEBRIS WAS SIMPLY FLUSHED INTO THE GROUND AND THE BAY.
When one adds the long-term effects of the discharge of untreated sewage, leakage from underground petroleum tanks and the escape of PCP from electrical generators, it is beyond doubt that Subic Bay (and many other active and inactive US military facilities around the world) are contaminated in many ways which threaten the long-term health and safety of local residents. The contamination also constitutes a potential barrier to investment and development necessary to convert closed facilities into useful assets for the benefit of the economy and citizens of the host nations.
With this background as to how and why the pollution exists, we come to the critical questions to be raised here. How much and what kind of pollution exists? Where is it? What must be done to get rid of it? What resources are required? And, who is responsible to resolve the problem? Because answers to the first three questions are all dependent on who is responsible, we should examine that question first. In preparing for this forum, I reviewed all the official documents I could gather in Washington, DC which define interpretation of its responsibilities. The outlook is bleak. This was October 1995 and lays out the most formal and straight forward expression of US Policy.
The US Department of Defense issued a directive titled, ENVIRONMENTAL REMEDIATION POLICY FOR DOD ACTIVITIES OVERSEAS. This directive addresses separately the responsibilities at facilities which are open and not designed for closure; and, facilities which have been designated for return to the host nation or that have been returned already. We have one set of standard for those who are present and operating and another for those gone or going.
In the case of operating facilities, a clear statement of US responsibility is made. “Service components and defense agencies shall take prompt action to remediate know imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and safety due to environmental contamination caused by DOD operations.” Obviously, if Americans are present on site, the military service has a strong motive to identify significant contamination and imminent and substantial endangerment to their own people and to take prompt remedial action.
By contrast, the same attention and response at closed facilities being turned over to host nations is less likely. Furthermore, the statement about US responsibilities contains an escape clause. It says that corrective action shall “not exceed a remediation scheme approved before return by the service or defense agency consultation with the DOD environmental executive agent.” There has to be an existing formal agreement as to what is to be done before we depart. Those schemes could include what sites are to be remediated and acceptable contamination levels and measures to be used in the remediation. Such schemes shall include “…sites to be remediated and… acceptable contaminant levels and/or measures to be used.” Thus, if no agreeable remediation scheme exists, there is no clear obligation to clean up the site.
An important point to note is that the directive states that only US officials are authorized to determine if site pollution constitutes an imminent and substantial endangerment; and, to decide the extent of the remedies which the US will undertake. Acceptable measures can extend from permanent remediation to simply restricting access to polluted areas.
Furthermore, US officials are quick to point out that the US basing agreement in the Philippines did not require the US to return bases in their original condition and that the US is held harmless for damages to base facilities. This is probably the most extreme disclaimer of US responsibility for environmental conditions on foreign base. The reason for that is clear: We more or less imposed the bases on the Philippines during our some 90 years of presence here. Cold War bases that came into existence to ring the Soviet Union were more equitably or justly developed. Most basing agreements around the world absolve the US of full accountability for damages created by their military presence.
The DOD directive does not recognize that international agreements may require the US to fund environmental remediation beyond that necessary to correct imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and safety. So we’ve said in one case the obligation is absolute and the next one, we might recognize it. Commanders are cautioned, however, that before clean-up is undertaken there must be a legal determination that a mandatory requirement exists; and, that it arises from a binding international agreement pertaining to US military operating rights in the host country. Once the host nation takes over a returned facility, DOD will not fund any remediation actions not required by international agreements or approved remediation schemes. No matter how bad it is and how much a host nation wants it done, it has to be approved and
In a sense, the directive adds insult to injury by authorizing host nations to use their own resources to clean-up US bases, subject to operational and security requirements. If it’s polluted, okay, you can come and clean it up as long as it conforms with our security requirements. The US does not acknowledge a requirement to maintain information concerning pollution on its bases overseas and authorizes release of that information to host nations.
Overall, it is clear that official US policy is to minimize or deny responsibility for dealing with pollution at overseas military bases and facilities, particularly at those which have been returned to host nations. This is inequitable because awareness of military pollution in the United States has grown dramatically in recent years. In 1984, the total funds available to American military forces for environmental protection and clean-up was less than $200 million in 1984. In 1997, the total will be almost $5 billion. This is in addition to nearly $6 billion to be spent by the Department of Energy on environmental management, most of which is related to nuclear weapons manufacturing.
In all candor, I must point out that even these huge sums, spent only in the United States, do not guarantee successful cleanup efforts. I have reviewed the reports which document lack of progress within the US and identify unresolved problems. First, far too much of the money is being spent on studies and too little on actually cleaning up polluted sites. Studies are very profitable and we can go on doing studies even if there are frequent disagreement on the level of remediation which will restore the bases to useful purposes. This is compounded by arguments between agencies within the US government as to which ones are responsible for which remediation measures.
One official survey of six major US military bases in the United States which evaluated environmental cleanup progress was made recently. The only fair appraisal of the findings of this survey is to call them “Documentation of Chaos.” Not one of the six bases had even determined the nature and extent of pollution present, nor settled on effective remediation measures. For example, at one landfill on one base, eight remedial options were still under consideration. These ranged in cost from zero dollars (no action) to $183 million dollars (complete excavation and incineration of all waste). When one considers that there are more than 2,000 polluted sites on military bases in the US, it is obvious that solutions and effective action are a long way in the future in spite of the billions of dollars now being appropriated.
Of course, these huge sums are authorized because of political pressure on the White House and Congress to protect Americans against the consequences of military pollution generated during the Cold War; and, to prevent further damage through more rigorous enforcement of sound environmental management practices on military bases.
None of this intensified awareness and commitment of resources within the United States will help in anyway on foreign military bases unless host nations resort to the same political pressures on the American government that domestic politics have placed on the White House and Congress. It is a political issue and it has to be resolved through political processes that host nations have to use and whatever clout they can muster to get the US to take action. Pressure to do what? First, to conduct thorough surveys of foreign bases and surrounding areas to determine the exact nature and extent of pollution present. I was informed that the survey in Subic was very sketchy. It hasn’t even scratched the surface. There can be no positive program of remedial action until such surveys are done and the results evaluate.
Second, work programs must be designed thoroughly and implemented with full participation by the United States. In this process, host nations should benefit from the $700 million the US is spending each year to advance the science and technology of environmental remediation. With improved knowledge, equipment and procedures, far more remediation can be accomplished now in less time and cost than in the past.
Finally, the United States should be pressured for funding to restore the returned bases to environmental levels which are safe for the residents and which will permit useful enterprises to go forward on the sites. America was willing to spend tremendous sums of money in order to use these bases in the Cold War. Whether or not there is any binding agreement or legal obligation to do so, shared concern for the well-being and safety of local citizens as well as simple justice should impel the United States to devote a fraction of what was spent in the bases during the Cold War to remedy the ravages of US occupation.
One warning, during my research, I found references to the existence and enforcement of published environmental standards within host nations. It is clear that if its own local environmental standards are not being enforced by a host nation, the United States will use this failing as an argument that it cannot be required to honor those standards in its base remediation efforts.
Let me close by stating that base cleanup is a POLITICAL problem, first and foremost. How host nations can produce the desired political responses from the United States is very hard to predict. One obvious pressure point exists: wherever American armed forces are seeking continued access to host nation ports and air bases. For example, this is the case in the Philippines today. It seems only logical to link such access with satisfactory levels of support from the United States in cleaning up the poisonous legacy of US occupation during 45 years of the Cold War (US military presence, i.e. basing was from 1900 to 1992 — ed.).
I wish all of you well in your efforts to promote improved conditions in your own nations and to make this a cleaner, safer, more peaceful abode for our children in the 21st century than we have created in the 20th century.
The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip in 2002.