Defining Waste in the Military

January 31, 1995

Would anyone seriously call a buried unexploded artillery shell filled with lethal chemicals a "product" instead of "hazardous waste"?

Yet that is one of the points of dispute in a national lawsuit filed by an Aberdeen citizens group to force the military to change the way it cleans up its toxic munitions. Treat these expended but still dangerous rounds as hazardous waste and neutralize them promptly, the group argues. Exempt these useless munitions as products not subject to waste cleanup, the Army responds.

The thrust of the lawsuit is to force the Environmental Protection Agency to write regulations that define when expended and obsolete stockpiled munitions become waste and, thus, how they will be treated under existing law.

This would reduce the risk of toxics leaking from discarded shells and polluting adjacent lands and would also avoid much costlier cleanups years later, according to the Aberdeen Proving Ground Superfund Citizens Coalition which filed the suit.

Some 20 million shells, many containing hazardous chemicals, are scattered over the 72,000 acres of APG, the coalition claims. In 1993, 18,000 rounds were fired there; not all exploded, some had toxic chemical residues.

APG already plans to spend $1 billion over 15 years in an unprecedented effort to reduce and neutralize the threat from the buried witches' brew remaining from 75 years of testing explosives, mustard agent, nerve gas and other dangerous chemical weapons.

But the nationwide task is enormous, and the success of the citizen lawsuit could force even costlier prevention measures. The Defense Department estimates there are 19,000 sites at over 1,700 military installations that potentially need to be cleaned up, at a cost of well over $25 billion. Just to treat the Old O-Field munitions dump at APG will cost $100 million; complete excavation would cost billions of dollars -- and that is but one of a dozen sites at APG targeted for remediation.

Faced with these realities, EPA has been reluctant to take action despite years of negotiations with the parties. The Aberdeen group, formed several years ago after the threat of chemical contamination of drinking water wells around APG, joined with the national Military Toxics Project advocacy organization to bring suit and force EPA's hand.

In the end, the military will recognize the economy of pollution prevention and the need to treat its waste munitions sooner rather than later. But this citizen lawsuit will help to press that argument, for the ultimate betterment of the environment.

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