GIVEN THE SIZE OF OUR DEFENSE BUDGETS, it should come as no surprise that the United States military is one of the planet’s most prolific and chronic polluters. Perhaps more surprising is that this impacts life within the U.S. as well as overseas. Vast stretches of the American landscape are contaminated by the business of war and armed aggression; it’s littered with unexploded ordnance, toxic chemicals, depleted uranium, radioactive particles, and more.
In this essay, we examine seven such sites of environmental damage wrought by the nation’s military and its weapons contractors. The places range from sites in New Mexico, where nuclear weapons have been produced, to the Passaic River in New Jersey, where dioxin from Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War has poisoned the riverbed. As the technology of warfare changes, so has its impact, with current contamination coming from the skies—such as on Whidbey Island, Washington, where Navy testing of EA-18G Growler planes might be making residents ill.
Acid Canyon; Los Alamos, New Mexico Scientists working on the Manhattan Project and subsequent nuclear-weapons research during the Cold War era dumped radioactive waste down the hillside of what is now a popular hiking area, near Los Alamos National Laboratory. “The scientists knew this canyon was contaminated back in the 1950s and ’60s,” said Greg Mello, a former inspector with the state Environment Department in a 2015 interview. Trinity Site; White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico Members of the public gather around the obelisk monument to the first atomic-bomb detonation, which marked the beginning of the atomic age, on July 16, 1945. The explosion sent shocks that broke windows 120 miles away and was felt by people at least 160 miles away. Radiation spread as far as the Wabash River in Indiana, where Eastman Kodak sourced water for a paper mill that produced the packaging for its film. Customers complained that their film was fogged, and the company eventually traced it back to the Trinity explosion. Kodak ended up securing a pledge that the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission would provide Kodak with schedules and maps for future tests, in return for the company’s silence about the fallout—thereby notifying corporate America, and not the American people, of the risk. Today the site is a closed radiation and military zone, opened only two days a year to public. Haystack Mine; Haystack Mountain, New Mexico A new home built to replace a contaminated structure near Haystack Mountain. Several structures in the area were built with contaminated materials from abandoned uranium mines, presenting critical health risks for residents. From 1950 through the 1980s, uranium was mined across 27,000 square miles in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah to provide material for the U.S. nuclear-weapons program. Many Navajo worked in the mines and ended up dying of kidney failure, as well as lung and other cancers. Uranium has been found in the urine of Navajo children today. White Sands Missile Range Museum; New Mexico The Cold War–era mass production of nuclear weapons required the construction of military bases around the country—including one of the largest, at White Sands Missile Range, which was established July 9, 1945, and spans 3,200 square miles. More than 60 missiles tested and used in combat from the 1950s through the 1990s, including Pershings, Patriots, Falcons, and Redstones, are on display. Luis Lopez Cemetery; New Mexico Luis Lopez is a town in one of the four counties being studied for health impacts resulting from radiation fallout from the 1945 Trinity atomic test. Unlike residents of Nevada and Utah, those in New Mexico have never been acknowledged or covered under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. People living within 150 miles of the Trinity site at the time of the blast have shown a higher risk of developing cancer than in other parts of New Mexico, according to a health-impact study released in 2017 by the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. San Antonio, New Mexico “All of a sudden we heard that boom and we saw that mushroom cloud come up. The ground just shook all over. We didn’t know what happened.” —Tiburcio Padilla Tiburcio Padilla, 83, looks out his window while recalling July 16, 1945—the day when, as a boy, he witnessed the first atomic-bomb blast. The atomic age was born just 30 miles away in the Jornada del Muerto desert. The Trinity test marked the triumph of the Manhattan Project, paving the way for the quick assembly of the nuclear weapons that would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki soon after, on August 6 and August 9, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands. Residents living around the Trinity test site were never monitored or studied for health impacts, unlike so-called “downwinders” in Nevada and Utah. In 2014, the National Cancer Institute finally began a survey—a full 69 years after the event. Padilla grew up sterile, as did another brother and two of his sisters. Four out of 12 children in his family were unable to conceive. He wonders if his proximity to the test and the resulting radiation rendered him infertile. Fort Wingate, New Mexico Fort Wingate has been used by the U.S. military for more than 150 years to wage war against indigenous people, as well as to store and test weapons intended for people outside America’s borders. The site sits on the grounds of the former Fort Fauntleroy, a temporary post established in 1860 that was the site of a massacre of more than a dozen Navajo. Renamed in 1862, it became a staging point for the forced Navajo march—the Long Walk—and a post to wage war against the Apaches in New Mexico Territory. The fort was transformed into the largest ammo depot in the world during World War I, and throughout the 20th century was used as a storage and demilitarization facility and weapons-testing ground. It closed in 1993. The government is in negotiations to return some of the land to the Zuni and Navajo, who consider it ancestral grounds—but much of the landscape is contaminated, including the groundwater in some places. OUR POISONED STATES OF AMERICA: One consistent element is all of these sites have a special sign: “Acknowledgment of Danger.” This refers to a mandatory form that all visitors must sign in order to enter Indiana’s Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, a former military proving ground. For this project, Berman visited over a dozen sites across the country—a small fraction of those that have been polluted by government and military activities. Whidbey Island, Washington A resident measures the sound from a EA-18G Growler, one of 82 planes on the island, where U.S. Navy pilots train in electromagnetic warfare and low-altitude touch-and-go landings. Residents say the sound from the jets has topped 130 decibels, leading to negative health impacts such as anxiety, depression, and hearing loss. Outdoor activity is limited during trainings, which can go well into the evening hours and occur several days a week. Several residents wear giant earmuffs to protect themselves. The Navy wants to increase the fleet to 118 and has said that the planes are integral to winning the war on terror. Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge; Madison, Indiana Inside a “closed zone” that was contaminated with depleted uranium. The wildlife refuge was once the Jefferson Proving Ground, which operated from 1940 to 1995 as a munitions-testing area for the U.S. Army. At the height of its operations during the Korean War, 175,000 rounds were fired there per month. A traditional bowhunter poses in the woods during deer-hunting weekend at the Big Oaks Wildlife Refuge. In 2000, the Department of Defense worked out an arrangement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had already taken over stewardship of the contaminated landscape. It established the Big Oaks Wildlife Refuge on 50,000 acres that include the former proving ground. More than 24 million rounds were fired at the proving ground. From 1984 to 1994, the Army test-fired more than 220,000 lb of tank-penetrator rounds containing depleted uranium. Despite some cleanup, more than 154,324 lb of depleted uranium and 1.5 million rounds of unexploded ordnance remain on the grounds. Near the Starmet Superfund site; Concord, Massachusetts In 2002, the defense contractor Starmet declared bankruptcy, leaving many times more depleted uranium on and under its 46-acre site than the entire amount fired on Iraq during the first Gulf War. Higher cases of cancer have been reported in Concord compared to surrounding areas; however, researchers cannot say that the site is the definitive cause. In 2007, Concord residents had the zoning changed to residential so that the EPA cleanup would adhere to higher standards. Now Black Birch, a housing development catering to the active-senior set, is being built on the other side of the woods from the Starmet Superfund site. From the early 1970s until 1999, Starmet—formerly called Nuclear Metals, Inc.—processed depleted uranium into tank shells and armor for the U.S. Army. Rather than dispose of the waste responsibly, it dumped depleted uranium and other poisons into an unlined pool, contaminating the groundwater and at least two nearby wells. Starmet also buried drums of waste underground which, when uncovered, tested for high levels of radioactivity. The site was also adjacent to a children’s summer camp called Camp Thoreau. Cleanup of the site began in 1997, continuing today, and it is listed as an EPA Superfund site. Walden Pond—a national historic landmark celebrated in the writings of Henry David Thoreau as a place of profound natural beauty, a “lower heaven”—lies a few miles west of the Superfund site where Starmet, a military contractor, processed depleted uranium for the U.S. Army to use in tank shells, then dumped the waste into the earth, groundwater, and streams. The pond was spared. Passaic River; Lyndhurst, New Jersey The Joseph Carmine de Jessa Memorial Bridge over the Passaic River connects the towns of Lyndhurst and Nutley, New Jersey. The bridge is named after a 19-year-old U.S. Marine who died from a mortar attack while deployed as a rifleman in Quang Tri, Vietnam, in 1967. During the 1960s, the Diamond Alkali Co. plant in Newark produced Agent Orange for the U.S. military, then dumped the surplus into the Passaic River, where it settled into the riverbed, stretching from Newark to Lyndhurst. Veterans from an organization in Newark look to warn fishermen not to eat fish caught in the Passaic River, as it could be contaminated with dioxin from Vietnam War–era Agent Orange production. The Passaic River is one of the most polluted in the country and is an EPA Superfund site. The price of cleanup is estimated at well over $1.5 billion. Tularosa, New Mexico A candlelight vigil commemorating the Trinity test and those who lost loved ones from cancer (allegedly caused by radiation exposure) takes place July 16, 2016, on the anniversary of the Trinity test, on a baseball field in Tularosa, New Mexico. Residents of four counties in New Mexico within 150 miles of the Trinity test say they have experienced higher-than-normal rates of cancer, including cancers linked to radiation; they are asking the government to including them in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. At the vigil, residents place candles inside paper bags written with the names of those who had died. Each name is read aloud to the sound of a drum and gong; it takes three hours to read them all. This work was supported by a grant from The Aftermath Project .