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Pollution supersized

The world’s largest polluter is the military

By Lottie Spady
Special to the Michigan Citizen

This is the second in a series of columns on the 15th Environmental Justice principle. Environmental Justice Principle 15 opposes military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms.

Dare I suggest a rewrite of EJ principle 15, considering the cost of militarism to the environment and the environmental injustice of militarism in and of itself? This principle could just as easily be written: Environmental Justice opposes the ongoing military occupation, repression and exploitation of all of the land, people and culture, and every life form. Let’s consider the effect of militarism through the lens of the Superfund.

“Superfund” is the name given to the United States federal law designed to clean up sites contaminated with solids, liquids or gases that can harm people, other living organisms, property, or the environment. Officially named the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), the law authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to identify who is responsible for the contamination and pressure the guilty parties to clean up the sight. If the responsible party cannot be found, the EPA is allowed to clean the sight itself from a special trust fund. 

Superfund sites are waste sites classified as those most hazardous to human and ecological health and today, nearly 900 of EPA’s approximately 1,300 Superfund sites are abandoned military bases or facilities or military industrial manufacturing and testing sites. 

The sites include chemical warfare and research facilities; plane, ship and tank manufacturers and repair facilities; training and maneuver bases; and abandoned disposal pits. Common contaminants include metal cleaning solvents, pesticides, machining oils, metals, metalworking fluids and chemical ingredients used in explosives. Dumped into pits, leaking from corroding containers, buried in unlined landfills, and left on test ranges, military toxics have leached into groundwater and polluted drinking water.

Military testing requires national and international “sacrifice zones.” Jefferson Proving Grounds in Madison, Ind., which is 100 square miles of the most contaminated contiguous land in the United States, was cordoned off and abandoned because the land was too dangerous to clean up, according to Michael Renner, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, in his work, “Assessing the Military’s War on the Environment.”

This ultimately creates a super problem. There is a dangerous, unproductive cycle by which the Depart of Defense creates the most toxic environmental conditions then pays private companies to come in and clean up these sites, only to create more toxic environmental conditions with a continually larger “investment” in war and preparation for war. Even when the culprit makes moves to “improve” its operations, the machine grinds the idea into the dust. 

Even though the world is sliding around in this toxic spill of power at the national level, we do have an opportunity to impact this destructive cycle at the local level with legislation such as Proposal 3, which requires that 25 percent of Michigan’s energy come from renewable sources such as wind, solar and biomass by 2025. This may seem like a tiny, insignificant step against such a machine as the mighty military industrial complex, but this would help set a nationwide standard for responsible energy generation and consumption.

How does it feel to have that super power?

Lottie V. Spady is part of the Justice Communications Team and associate director at East Michigan Environmental Action Council. She can be reached at or


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