The U.S. Army is showing a disrespect that borders on hostility toward its neighbors who live near the Army’s Fort Gillem base just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. The Army’s decades-long failure to protect these families from life-threatening contamination—that the Army itself had caused—has forced the U.S. EPA last week to literally order the Army to finally do something to protect them. Here’s the story: For much of the time between 1940 and 2011, Army personnel indiscriminately dumped a staggering array of highly toxic chemicals–including the notorious carcinogen, TCE–at the Fort Gillem base. As a result, today, the legacy of the base is eight highly-contaminated areas, one of which is a 300-acre landfill that, all by itself, has at least 356 known chemical dump locations. Because the Army recklessly left these chemicals in the ground, the chemicals predictably bled down through the soil, infiltrated the underlying groundwater (forming at least three large “plumes” of contamination), and then oozed into nearby residential neighborhoods.  Neighborhoods full of families and kids.  Worse, many of these chemicals, such as TCE, are “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs). It has been known for years that VOCs vaporize, and then drift back upward from the groundwater in the form of gas, migrating through the soil, and surrounding and even penetrating overlying homes.  That means the nasty volatile chemicals could be in the air that people are breathing–both in their home and in their yard. Since at least 1992, the Army has known that the groundwater underneath these families was highly contaminated with Fort Gillem’s chemicals and that the people could be in danger from toxic gas.  For example, the Army found toxic vapors in the Fort Gillem soil as early as 1996 and even found them in the surrounding neighborhoods in 2003.  These results should have compelled the Army to immediately begin testing for toxic vapors inside of and surrounding the homes. But that didn’t happen. No, the Army didn’t start this vapor testing until the summer of 2014–more than 20 years after it first knew there was a problem.  And, when it finally did the testing, the Army found that most of the homes tested had toxic vapors inside them. The EPA’s written September 24, 2014 Order RCRA-04-2014-4251 documents just how thoroughly the Army’s contamination has inundated the surrounding neighborhoods, threatening the lives of the people who live there.  According to the EPA:

(1) The chemicals dumped at Fort Gillem “have been identified in the soils, sediments, surface water, groundwater, soil vapor, indoor air and ambient [i.e, outside] air in and around the residential properties near” Fort Gillem.  (see Order, p. 10, paragraph 13) (my emphasis).

(2) Those in danger from the contamination include “adults and children, with sensitive populations in women of child-bearing age and pregnant women […] both young children and the elderly may be included in a sensitive population group.”  (see Order, p. 10, paragraph 13 d).

But, for as scary as this sounds, it was nothing new to the Army. For years, the Army has known how badly it had contaminated the neighborhoods near Fort Gillem, and that the people might be breathing the toxic vapors.  But it did nothing about it.  And so the EPA had to step in with its order, very specifically telling the Army what it had to do in the neighborhoods.  For example:

(1) “evaluate[] whether indoor and/or ambient air in residential and other properties surrounding the former Fort Gillem contains hazardous constituents”;

(2) “document[] the levels of such constituents”;

(3) “determine[] the level of risk posed by those constituents to the residents, owners, employees, students, and invitees of the properties surrounding the firmer Fort Gillem”; and

(4) “mitigate[] any unacceptable risk to those persons.” (see Order, p. 13, paragraph 27).

In simple terms, EPA told the Army: “find out if the people are in danger, and protect them”. That this had to be said to the Army, decades after it dumped the very chemicals that the Army knew people were likely breathing in the neighborhood, is a disgrace. The Army knew it had put its neighbors’ lives in danger, but did not have the decency on its own to try to protect them. Don’t bet any important money on the Army obeying the EPA’s order.

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