The Link Between New York’s Environmental Injustice Issues And The Military’s Historic Negligence

North Carolina's notorious Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base, toxic contamination continued unabated for over thirty years
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Photos: YouTube

For almost a century, the US military's negligent disposal of hazardous substances in and around its installations have adversely impacted the lives of our service members. In instances such as North Carolina's notorious Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base, toxic contamination continued unabated for over thirty years, exposing its inhabitants to health hazards known to cause serious illnesses.

The US Army's haphazard practices contributed to a prevalent pattern of discrimination that disproportionately affects marginalized communities. In densely populated states like New York, minorities face higher environmental risks and report higher rates of disease due to their proximity to industrial, military, and various other pollution sources.

Black Service Members Still at Higher Risk of Toxic Exposure
Before Camp Lejeune's legacy became entangled with toxic contamination issues, the base's reputation was already blemished by the discrimination its first African American recruits endured throughout the 40s. The 20,000 Black marines who served during the base's initial years were segregated to the inferior facility Point Montford, located on Camp Lejeune's swampy periphery. Black recruits were also frequently mistreated by their white superiors and brothers-in-arms.

After the Army was desegregated, Black service members were no longer restricted to racially separated facilities like Point Montford. Still, none foresaw that it meant they would be housed in other areas on the base's premises where contamination was prevalent. From 1953 to 1987, approximately 1 million troops and their families stationed at Camp Lejeune were exposed to over 60 toxic substances, including carcinogens like benzene, vinyl chloride, trihalomethanes, trichloroethylene, and per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as the "forever chemicals."

Despite decades of progress, Black service members still incur higher risks of toxic injuries due to systemic racism and low representation in authority positions, making up only 9% of US Army officers. Consigned to lower positions in the Army's hierarchy, African American service members spend more time in contaminated areas and around various health hazards as part of their routine tasks.

New York's Historic and Ongoing Environmental Issues
In the 20th century, discriminatory zoning practices designated minority communities as undesirable, depreciating their land value and providing a cost-efficient option to situate pollution hotspots without any regard for residents' health. In New York, the phenomenon known as "environmental racism" can best be observed in the high concentration of industrial pollution sources (power plants, waste treatment facilities, waste transfer stations) located in historically redlined neighborhoods.

On top of existing issues, the use of hazardous substances on military installations poses a concern for vulnerable communities located within their vicinity. In particular, the overuse of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) in training scenarios and to extinguish difficult fuel fires has led to over 700 bases across the US being contaminated with harmful PFAS compounds.

To put it into perspective, the EPA noted in 2016 that PFAS concentrations above 70 parts per trillion (ppt) were unsafe. The state of New York currently hosts 18 bases where contamination was confirmed, with 10 exceeding the EPA's recommended guidelines. Moreover, locations such as Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station (1,310,000 ppt) and Plattsburgh Air Force Base (1,045,000 ppt) figure as some of the most contaminated in the country, dwarfing even a notorious base like Camp Lejeune (179,348 ppt). However, only 6 of the 18 bases have been deemed state or federal Superfund sites, which would require urgent remediation efforts to prevent harmful contaminants from spreading beyond their grounds.

During the Trump administration, the Department of Defense demonstrated a complete disregard for public health after it covertly burned +20 million pounds of AFFF. In Cohoes, NY, the Norlite Incinerator disposed of 7.7 million pounds of AFFF waste alone, releasing massive volumes of airborne PFAS in neighboring communities. There is no evidence that incinerating AFFF disposes of it.

Addressing Environmental Racism and Social Injustice
The disproportionate environmental burden marginalized communities experience has been the subject of extensive research over the past several decades. African Americans inhale 56% more airborne hazards than they contribute to and are more susceptible to respiratory diseases, a concerning fact considering air pollution's correlation with higher Covid mortality. Concurrently, the EPA also notes that the compounding effects of climate change also increase the risk of childhood asthma and heat stress – Black New Yorkers are 2.2 times more likely to suffer heat-related deaths than any other racial group.

Combating environmental and social injustice requires extensive institutional involvement and reform to address environmental crime at its core. Though updated legislation and harsher criminal convictions help deter polluters, underprivileged minority communities often don't have the resources to go up against influential individuals and groups who would rather maintain the toxic status quo at the expense of public health.

In 2020, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act that would see AFFF phased out by 2024 and allocated significant funds for PFAS cleanup on affected bases. The US' myriad environmental issues became a central policy point for the Biden administration, whose Justice40 pledge aims to direct 40% of future climate investments to minority communities in prominently polluted areas. Meanwhile, the bipartisan Honoring Our Pact Act will provide veterans affected by toxins and their families easier access to improved health benefits and compensation via the VA.

Finally, the EPA has taken it upon itself to set enforceable action levels for PFAS contaminants by 2023. Toward this end, it has recently updated its health advisory to better reflect the danger these ubiquitous contaminants represent, drastically reducing acceptable concentrations to 0.004 – 0.02 ppt.

About the Author
Jonathan Sharp is the CFO of Environmental Litigation Group PC, a law firm based in Birmingham, Alabama, that specializes in toxic exposure cases and helps individuals harmed by hazardous chemicals on US military bases.

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