Children under five who live in conflict zones are 20 times more likely to die from diseases related to unsafe water than the direct violence of warfare. This was according to a report by UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, to mark World Water Day on March 22.
Unfortunately, Madison’s political establishment is not content to placidly preside over the poisoning of our water. It has also found it necessary to bombard us with the pestilence of the military industrial complex.
One in four Americans drinks water from a system that violates the Safe Drinking Water Act, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Milwaukee’s children have suffered the poisoning of their water and activists there have accused city officials of criminal activity.
If Madison and Dane County public officials are not criminally culpable, they at least appear to be negligent and wrong-headed. Our former mayor, current county executive and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin all joined forces with the Chamber of Commerce to promote the basing of F-35 fighter jets at Truax Field. With these jets will come even more noise and air pollution than city residents already must endure with the F-16s now stationed here.
The F-35, the most expensive weapons in the U.S. arsenal, costs taxpayers about $100 million each. The Air National Guard proposes to “bed” a squadron of 20 F-35A jets in Madison.
Meanwhile, the National Guard has been polluting our water since the 1950s. Does the Guard plan to be a good neighbor and clean up the monumental mess it has made? Not likely. The excuse? They can’t afford it. Baldwin and other members of the U.S. Senate recently approved a $700 billion defense budget. Have federal, state, city and county officials demanded that the military clean up its mess? It doesn’t appear so, although it’s hard to know since decisions seem to be made behind closed doors.
What are the pollutants that the National Guard can’t afford to clean up or even investigate? They are called PFAS, an acronym for a group of synthetic chemical compounds, of which 3,500 or more now exist. They are used to repel water and oil in everything from non-stick kitchenware to firefighting foam employed by the military. Research shows the compounds accumulate in animal tissue and are associated with liver damage, thyroid disruption, cancer, lower infant birth rate and other maladies. They are called “forever chemicals” because they break down slowly, if at all, and spread easily through water, above and below ground.
The toxic PFAS foam was used in training exercises at Truax starting around 1953, as well as by city and county fire departments. It has also been used at Fort McCoy, Volk Field and other Wisconsin military installations. Astronomical levels of PFAS compounds were found in groundwater tested at Volk Field and Fort McCoy.
PFAS-based firefighting foam is produced at the Tyco Fire Products plant near the Menominee River in Marinette. Tyco stopped spraying the foam on the ground in 2017, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, but admits it still dumps it into the city sanitary sewer. Tests of a sewer line near the plant revealed 3,670 parts per trillion of a PFAS compound for which the state of Michigan has set a water quality standard of 12 parts per trillion. Other tests found 202,000 parts per trillion in ground and surface water near Tyco and 1,900 parts per trillion in drinking water.
Here in Madison, lower levels of PFAS have been found in drinking water pumped from a municipal well on East Washington Ave. Although below the EPA threshold of 70 parts per trillion, the city shut down the well in early March. In 1989, the Department of Defense found highly toxic chemicals besides PFAS in soils, groundwater and surface water by burn pits near the air base, where PFAS foam training exercises were held. Starkweather Creek, the largest watershed in Madison, flows within feet of the two burn pit areas before proceeding south to Lake Monona.
The Environmental Working Group recently reported that there were at least 192 PFAS water pollution sites in 39 states. Over 62 percent were military locations where firefighting foam was used.
What have other states and municipalities done in response to similar contamination? Minnesota began battling 3M, a major PFAS manufacturer, over a decade ago upon discovering contaminated water and fish. The state sought $5 billion in damages and settled for $850 million. West Virginia had earlier settled a PFAS litigation with DuPont for $671 million.
More recently, Michigan issued violation letters against the Air Force when it found deer meat in a wetland near an air base contaminated by high levels of PFAS chemicals. “The slow response (to the) contamination is having an increasingly negative impact on the people, wildlife and environment” in a town near the base, said the director of Michigan’s PFAS Action Response Team. More than 30 sites in 15 communities across Michigan have confirmed PFAS contamination.
The city of Newburgh, New York, is suing a number of entities over the contamination of Washington Lake, its water supply source. The state determined that PFAS originated at Stewart ANG Base and Stewart International Airport. The city has brought suit against the U.S. Air Force, Port Authority of New York and Jersey, New York State and manufacturers of the firefighting foam.
So what have Madison, Dane County and Wisconsin done to press the Air Force and National Guard to clean up its poisonous mess? Not much. A year ago, according to the State Journal, the Department of Natural Resources warned the National Guard it could face enforcement action if it didn’t move swiftly to clean up the toxic chemicals in the city’s drinking water. Truax never responded. Soon after, the DNR signed a memorandum of agreement with the military that rescinded all demands and deadlines.
A DNR spokesman acknowledged that Congress has failed to allocate sufficient funds for the Department of Defense to clean up the PFAS and other pollutants it has generated. So Madison must wait in line, and the line is long. A good time to bring in a new breed of fighter jets to add more air and noise pollution to the mix, right?
“Many members of Congress would rather spend more money on building a new aircraft carrier, so the cleanup program is underfunded,” former DNR Secretary George Meyer was quoted as saying. Could this have been an allusion to Baldwin, much enamored by Madison liberals, who’ve failed to notice that she long ago surrendered her heart to Lockheed Martin?
Baldwin fought like a tiger to stick another littoral combat ship (LCS) into the 2018 defense budget. The ship has a price tag of $1.2 billion. The Project on Government Oversight noted that the LCS program was forced into multiple changes due to “large cost overruns, lack of combat survivability and lethality discovered during operational testing and deployment, and the almost crippling technical failures and schedule delays.”
Baldwin got her additional ship, which the Navy did not want, in what the Project on Government Oversight described as “record-breaking speed in pork pressure politics.”
It is sad that our city and county are supposedly planning for a sustainable and fossil fuel-free future, and our youth are vigorously advocating for the same. Yet meanwhile we sacrifice our children and community to the warfare state that is the planet’s primary polluter and user of fossil fuels.
The 27 neighborhoods bordering Truax are already challenged by high levels of poverty and unemployment, high housing costs, and noise and air pollution from jets and vehicular traffic. Many of these neighborhoods have large minority populations. A 2006 UW study of the Starkweather watershed listed 30 chemicals and contaminants with “toxicity and carcinogenic tendencies” in the creek.
Now our political leaders and Chamber of Commerce plan to bomb these neighborhoods with tons of volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and large and small particulates from F-35 fighter jets.
Twelve schools are located in the periphery of the airport. Even the Air Force admits “that young children are more susceptible than adults to the effects of background noise.” Studies show reading attention, problem-solving and memory are degraded by repeated direct blasting of children with aircraft noise.
The Air Force acknowledged that the EPA recommends an average noise level no higher than 55 decibels. It says a person on the ground is exposed to a peak sound level of 94 decibels when an F-16 takes off. The peak sound level for the F-35 under similar conditions is 115 decibels. According to the Air Force, each 10-decibel increase in sound level is heard by the human ear as a doubling of loudness. Therefore the 21-decibel increase makes the F-35 more than four times louder than the F-16.
The World Bank reported in 2017 that the nations of the world must invest $150 billion a year to achieve universal safe water and sanitation. The U.S. nuclear weapons “enhancement” program that Barack Obama initiated will cost $57 billion per year. Strip this amount from our obscene military budget and we can cover 38 percent of the tab to provide the whole world with clean water.
Tom Boswell is a writer, photographer and community organizer who lives near Truax Field. He blogs at TomBoswellblog.wordpress.com
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