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Activist Erin Brockovich Mobilizes With Veterans to Bring Attention to Military Base Contamination

by Countable | 5.20.17

Well-known environmental activist Erin Brockovich is teaming up with a group of veterans, Operation Stand Together, for a rally Saturday in Washington D.C. focused on environmental contamination at U.S. military bases. Brockovich is speaking at the rally and has been collecting data on military base contamination for more than eight years.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has to date identified 142 military bases with groundwater contamination due to a variety of chemicals; they are testing 400 in all. More than $150 million has been spent on site clean up so far, yet the general public has been largely unaware.

According to Brockovich, the toxicity of a firefighting foam containing perfluorinated compounds (PFC’s) that is used in both military and civilian contexts has been known by the government for decades. "The EPA informed the Australian military about the toxicity in the 90’s. My law firm has copies of the documents," she insisted.

Communities in proximity to military bases have discovered their groundwater is also contaminated, apparently due to the chemicals migrating. PFC’s are unregulated and little understood, but existing research indicate the chemicals are linked to testicular and kidney cancers, thyroid disease, and high cholesterol.

Brockovich says the mission of Operation Stand Together is to bring awareness to the prevalence of military base environmental contamination and its effects on military service members, their families and the surrounding communities.

Countable was able to catch up with Brockovich for an extensive interview concerning Operation Stand Together’s efforts and the surrounding issues.

Here is a transcript of highlights of our conversation with Brockovich. Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Countable: How did you end up connected to this whole effort?

Brockovich: Because people call me. Every time they’re contaminated they come to me...Newburgh, NY- they came to me. Vermont came to me, New Hampshire came to me, West Virginia. Whenever there is an environmental problem everybody emails me…[Also] I’m a military mom. I have seen what my son has had to go through, the combat vets coming home. That these men and women will give their lives for this country and you have covered up [information] and they come home to find out that their families, or they, are being poisoned on their own soil is unforgivable….They come home and find out that their children are sick, that base housing was using well water that was highly contaminated...They understand what might happen to them, but their families? That’s asking too much.

Countable: You’ve mentioned this firefighting foam that is used on military bases, but you also mentioned municipalities. Is it municipalities near the bases or is municipal contamination a separate thing?

Brockovich: Well, it is definitely coming from the military bases. For example, in Newburgh, NY their drinking water is tainted by the foam that was used at an Air National Guard base. Officials are pressing the military to connect city residents to a different water source. But they also use this at airports. You have military, you have fire fighters, you have private manufacturing plants."

Countable: What is the significance of all of these veterans coming together?

Brockovich: When we see one base we think it’s a one-off. When all the bases- Marines, Air Force, Army, they all come together on a mission to stand together so that we can see the larger picture? It’s incredible. And it’s so like them to do that. It’s just a beautiful moment where they’re reaching out, base to base to base They’re identifying that they are not, in fact, alone. That we have a pollution problem that is effecting them, that is affecting the aquifers, that is migrating off-site and affecting communities.

Countable: Water quality and contamination has been the focus of your activism for decades. Why does it compel you?

Brockovich: Because water is life. If we lose it, we’re done. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, rich or poor, Republican or Democrat, we all need water. We all need it for our health, for our life. Why we’re polluting it and ignoring it when we’re borderline third world water in this country and people don’t even know it because nobody wants to report it and nobody wants to talk about it...All this information has been hidden and concealed. It’s disgusting. We need our water. It is life.

Countable: Are there legislators that are paying attention to this issue?

Brockovich: Bob Casey [D-PA] moved to amend the defense spending bill to force the release of the names of all the bases that use this foam. The North Carolina reps around Camp LeJeune...I heard this current administration say, We will take care of our vets. Here’s your chance. It sickens me that all of this gets caught up in the political rhetoric. I, for the life of me, cannot believe that they cannot get on the same damn page about water. It is a bi-partisan issue. They are our military. You poisoned them and you need to step up here, you need to defend them, you need to protect them, you need to do what’s right by them, and you need to start cleaning up your damn mess.

Countable: What should people outside the military take away from all of this?

Brockovich: There has been a lot of complacency and apathy in this country. If you think the government’s got your back, you’re wrong. If you think Superman’s coming to save you, you’re wrong. It will be people’s jobs to know about their water. Be pro-active, because this is going on everywhere. If you think your congressman knows you have polluted water, they don’t. You need to tell them. Squeeky wheel gets the oil. Start calling them. Call them again and again and again. Work at a local level. Push at a local level. Go to local meetings. Deal with your state because if they’re supposed to deal with this and they don’t even really know about it? You’re going to have to really become active as a citizen. We have an obligation as people to do that."

Brockovich has an ongoing online mapping project to allow individuals and communities to self-report "their diseases or their community’s, [if they] appear to be [dealing with] excessive disease". She believes we miss “clusters” all the time. She hopes increased media attention following Saturday’s rally will encourage more submissions to the map so the public can have a comprehensive picture of the environmental contamination challenges we’re facing.

Challenges to legislation to fix these issues include money and the presence of environmental toxins in everything from firefighting foam to toothpaste. The Pentagon opposed a law that would have required government notification of every person who had ever passed through Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama and had "been exposed to any toxic contaminants." The town also was home to a Monsanto factory and won a $700 million settlement over groundwater contamination by the company.

Elizabeth King, the Pentagon’s top liaison to Congress questioned whether environmental illnesses could be rightfully attributed to the base and raised concerns about the costs of the proposed notifications in an email to a House staffer in 2013:

"Considering that virtually every service member will have been exposed to something (including cigarette smoke) during their stationing at the former Fort McClellan, it is unclear what benefit such an open-ended survey would provide. [And] the cost of attempting to identify all these individuals, including the cost of media advertising, would be a significant burden on the Army’s budget...at a time when the Army is furloughing personnel due to a shortage of funds"

What do you think Congress should do about the groundwater contamination of military bases and their surrounding communities? Use the Take Action button to tell your reps!

— Asha Sanaker

(Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr / Creative Commons)*

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