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The U.S. Army’s negligent use, storage, and disposal of hazardous chemicals for over a century in and around its bases left lasting consequences for the environment and the lives of service members and their families. But not only those serving and living on military premises suffered devastating health conditions linked to the toxins resulting from activities of military bases.

Minority neighborhoods often have no choice but to accommodate living near hazardous areas like army bases, industrial facilities, landfills, traffic routes, and other sources of toxic pollution because of economic and social inequality. The disproportional exposure of ethnic communities to harmful pollutants is part of an insidious pattern of discrimination, also known as “environmental racism.”

According to a report released by the American Lung Association, Colorado cities are among the most polluted in the U.S. Denver ranks high nationwide in having hazardous levels of air pollution and contamination with industrial chemicals that pose significant health risks. As EPA requires certain industrial operations to report the waste they produce, Denver’s industrial pollution is mapped out in the region’s Toxic Release Inventory. It shows environmental risk factors like cement and chemical manufacturers and metal mines which accounted for 56% of toxic releases reported in the region.

As discriminatory redlining policies pushed vulnerable minority neighborhoods towards areas with potential toxic exposure hazards, 31.8% of residents who have Hispanic or Latino origin from Denver faced the danger of soil and water contamination on top of air pollution.

A Colorado map recently published by Mapping for Environmental Justice reveals the state’s contamination burden on communities of color. The mapping process identified several environmental injustice hot spots throughout Colorado, including North Denver. The hot spots have high pollution levels and show that the colored or low-income community’s toxic exposure risks stem from breathing nearly twice as much diesel pollution and 1.5% greater chances to live near a Superfund site than white communities.

The disproportionate environmental burden consists of an array of hazards from wastewater releases to air toxics, constantly exposing Coloradans of color to more pollution.
PEER’s 2021 report remarks that Colorado has the highest PFAS footprint in the country, and about 21,000 sites are suspected of using or storing compounds of it. Even though industrial activities are responsible for the preponderance of PFAS’, vulnerable communities also have to deal with contamination from several military sources. Nine military bases in Colorado were affected by PFAS from the aqueous film-forming foam AFFF, including Schriever Air Force Base (870,000 ppt), Buckley Space Force Base (formerly Buckley Air Force Base, 205,000 ppt), and Peterson Space Force Base (formerly Peterson Air Force Base, 15,000 ppt). 

These sites are classified as Superfund sites by the EPA because of the number of toxins polluting the drinking water sources of nearby disadvantaged communities, a case in point being Peterson Space Force Base. The military facility contaminated the drinking water sources of proximate communities, as shown in a  CDC study that found PFAS compounds above the national average in residents’ blood in a nearby exposed community.

From 1953 to 1987 in Camp Lejeune, nearly 1 million service members and their families were exposed to deadly toxins like benzene, vinyl chloride, trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, and per/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

Named “forever chemicals,” PFAS are artificial compounds that can quickly imbue the soil and pollute drinking water sources. Exposure to such toxins has been linked to various cancers, organ damage (liver, kidneys), decreased vaccine efficiency in children, high cholesterol, and weakened reproduction.

On Camp Lejeune, PFAS contamination is directly linked to AFFF used to extinguish difficult fuel blazes and train firefighters. While the EPA established PFAS concentrations above 70 parts per trillion unsafe, at Camp Lejeune, the highest level of “forever chemicals” was 172,000 ppt. 

Lacking economic power, frontline communities facing higher health risks from environmental inequity must rely on authorities to provide legal support that holds polluters accountable and protects vulnerable citizens. The state of Colorado validated PFAS laws and policies and adopted PFAS regulations that follow the EPA’s advisories closely.
With the Pentagon’s statement regarding replacing AFFF with a safe and effective substitute, the military takes practical steps to remedy the PFAS contamination. By October 2023, the army’s new generation of firefighting foams will have to be fluorine-free, and the Department of 

Defense will cease using all foams containing PFAS by 2024. It is a massive effort to stop AFFF use throughout the country and eliminate PFAS-contaminating sources. Furthermore, the EPA tries to clean up the military bases, but the PFAS removal process could take decades, and the imminent threat of toxic exposure remains.

The pressing need of the exposed minority neighborhoods for practical tools to fight corporate environmental immorality is met by private law. Environmental class action lawsuits can greatly discourage all organizations responsible for creating an unsafe environment through their activities and gain substantial payment from them.

Jonathan Sharp is the CFO of Environmental Litigation Group PC, a law firm from Birmingham, Alabama, that specializes in toxic exposure cases and assists veterans facing health issues due to toxic exposure on military bases.

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