Polluted water near air bases endangers communities

by John Leslie, originally published by Socialist Action

In the suburban Philadelphia neighborhoods surrounding a two now-closed U.S. Navy air bases, residents are faced with a drinking water crisis. Groundwater contaminated with carcinogens linked to a fire fighting foam forced the closing of both public and private wells. The Department of Defense (DoD) knew as early as 2001 that fire fighting foam contained potentially carcinogenic compounds. Pennsylvania Department of Health studies have found an increased rate of pancreatic and bladder cancer among residents in these communities.

Since 2014, public wells in Horsham, Warrington, and Warminster, Pa., have been shut down, affecting more than 83,000 customers. In all, a total of 16 of 36 public wells and more than 200 additional private wells have been taken out of service. The Navy and Air Force are paying to connect well owners to public water systems.

The Naval Air Warfare Center in Warrington was closed in 1996. The property was redeveloped into parks, homes, and businesses. The nearby Willow Grove Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base has also been shuttered, with a small section still under the jurisdiction of the Air Force. Plans to build homes, schools, a retirement community, and businesses on the site have been put on hold.

The government is investigating 400 military sites for water contamination and has found it at more than two dozen bases so far. In Bucks and Montgomery Counties, the contaminants have been found in groundwater miles away from the bases.

The response by government authorities has been slow. The EPA has yet to release a comprehensive plan for how to deal with these dangerous chemicals. The chemicals, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, or PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS, are implicated in kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, and other health conditions. These chemicals can be found in a wide range of household items, including fabrics, rugs and carpets, cookware, outdoor gear, shampoo, shaving cream, and cosmetics.

With more than 1000 bases overseas, and hundreds more in the U.S., the U.S. military is widely recognized as a major polluter. However, this pollution is rarely discussed in public or considered in terms of its impact on the environment. Despite the military’s seeming unlimited use of Climate Change inducing fossil fuels, the U.S. and other military machines are not considered in international Climate Accords.

The issue goes beyond the use of fossil fuels and creation of greenhouse gases. Military operations are implicated in radioactive and toxic waste contamination. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, for example, the use of depleted uranium rounds by tanks and aircraft has been linked to birth defects and cancer. During the first Gulf War, the U.S. and its allies targeted civilian infrastructure, destroying power stations, dams, sewage treatment plants, hospitals, and schools. The sanctions following the war made reconstruction of these facilities almost impossible and is implicated in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

Frequently, foreign bases dispose of trash, medical waste, tires, and other refuse in open-air burn pits. An Air Force staff sergeant told this writer that, while they were deployed in Afghanistan, the smoke from one such burn pit would envelope the flight line, forcing personnel to breathe the toxic air.

The U.S. imperialists and other imperialist countries continue to use their forces in wars for oil and other resources. As the climate crisis continues to unfold, the probability exists that wars will be fought over arable land and water sources. Likewise, the climate crisis could lead to the use of military forces to maintain order, leading to attacks on democratic rights.

War and militarism are a threat to our rights and very existence. The billions of dollars squandered on maintaining military apparatuses and wars worldwide must be redirected to meet human needs, remediate the environmental damage already done, and prepare society to address the effects of climate change. Building an effective movement against climate change requires an internationalist and anti-imperialist perspective.

In the communities of Bucks and Montgomery counties that have been affected by toxic groundwater, the government must do more to remediate the harm already done and ensure that drinking water is safe to drink.

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