Opinion: Military bases threaten the health of Alaska Native communities by causing environmental racism

  • By Jonathan Sharp
  • Tuesday, September 26, 2023 1:23pm
  • Opinion

This article has been corrected to fix a reference to contaminants in groundwater, not drinking water.

Environmental racism is a relatively new concept. It refers to the disproportionate pollution amount minority communities are exposed to due to the presence of industrial sites, toxic landfills, truck routes, but also military installations close to the areas they inhabit. The Yupik and Inuit are two Alaska Native peoples highly impacted by this phenomenon. They live near former Department of Defense sites where unimaginable contamination with polychlorinated biphenyls occurred during the last century.

As a consequence of the military’s activity, the water quality around St. Lawrence Island is extremely poor, containing a great PCBs level. While these chemicals pose a tremendous health risk for all residents, they imply a greater danger for the Indigenous population. Alaska Native people who live in Indigenous villages have diets higher in local fish and marine mammals. Since PCBs are stored in the fat of these animals, these communities are substantially more exposed to these harmful substances through consuming fatty tissue.

The military bases that are no longer in use were established during the Cold War and World War II. Alaska is home to a whopping 364 former military bases, out of which 248 have major environmental contamination issues, such as being polluted with toxic, hazardous or radioactive waste. This makes it the state with the third-largest number of formerly used defense sites in the country. However, PCBs are by no means the only hazardous chemicals that lurk on these military bases.

Shut down in 2008, Galena Air Force Base is located on the northern bank of the Yukon River. From 1967 onward, military firefighters have been using the fire suppressant known as AFFF on the site, which contains perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances in a concentration of up to 98%. These chemicals, particularly PFOS and PFOA, are strongly associated with life-threatening diseases such as kidney and prostate cancer. The highest level measured in the groundwater of Galena Air Force Base was 257,710 parts per trillion, exceeding the current safe exposure limit by over 3,680 times.

Kulis Air National Guard Base is another former military installation contributing to environmental racism among the Alaska Native population. Situated in Anchorage, it closed in 2011. There, the greatest PFOS and PFOA level in groundwater was 16,040 parts per trillion, eclipsing the safe exposure limit by almost 230 times. Like PCBs, these toxic chemicals infiltrate the drinking water sources of indigenous residents and also become stored in the meat of the fish and marine mammals they consume. Finally, Elmendorf Air Force Base is a former military facility with toxic contamination also located in Anchorage. The maximum PFOS and PFOA level there was roughly 108 times over the safe exposure limit.

Camp Lejeune is a military base with a grim legacy of environmental contamination where more than one million people drank toxic water for 34 years. The facility, which is still in use, is located in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Since its establishment in 1942, two of the eight water sources became polluted with industrial solvents, including benzene, trichloroethylene, vinyl chloride, and perchloroethylene. The trichloroethylene level exceeded the safe limit by 280 times, whereas the perchloroethylene level, by 43 times. PFOS and PFOA were also present in the groundwater, in a concentration of 179,348 parts per trillion, eclipsing the safe exposure limit by over 2,560 times.

Unfortunately, public law has been failing Alaska Native people. Although most of the former military installations these communities live close to have been deemed Superfund sites by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some are not on the National Priorities List at the moment. This means that the agency has not even begun assessing the extent of environmental contamination at those sites, let alone start performing cleanup activities to remove toxic agents.

Therefore, perhaps a more effective alternative to public law Alaska Native residents can use to combat environmental racism would be a combination of grassroots activism and collaboration with private law firms. By filing class action lawsuits, these vulnerable communities are more likely to achieve justice within a shorter period than if they waited for authorities to take the initiative, as new environmental laws usually take a lot of time to be enforced.

• Jonathan Sharp is chief financial officer at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama. The firm specializes in toxic exposure. Sharp is responsible for case evaluation, management of firm assets and financial analysis. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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