Later On

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How military outsourcing turned toxic

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Abrahm Lustgarten reports in ProPublica:

IN AUGUST 2016, an inspector from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arrived at Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana, a nerve center for the U.S. military’s global air combat operations, to conduct a routine look at the base’s handling of its hazardous waste.

Barksdale, like many military bases, generates large volumes of hazardous materials, including thousands of pounds of toxic powder left over from cleaning, painting and maintaining airplanes.

For years, Barksdale had been sending a portion of its waste to an Ohio company, U.S. Technology Corp., that had sold officials at the base on a seemingly ingenious solution for disposing of it: The company would take the contaminated powder from refurbished war planes and repurpose it into cinderblocks that would be used to build everything from schools to hotels to big-box department stores — even a pregnancy support center in Ohio. The deal would ostensibly shield the Air Force from the liabililty of being a large producer of dangerous hazardous trash.

The arrangement was not unique.

The military is one of the country’s largest polluters, with an inventory of toxic sites on American soil that once topped 39,000. At many locations, the Pentagon has relied on contractors like U.S. Technology to assist in cleaning and restoring land, removing waste, clearing unexploded bombs, and decontaminating buildings, streams and soil. In addition to its work for Barksdale, U.S. Technology had won some 830 contracts with other military facilities — Army, Air Force, Navy and logistics bases — totaling more than $49 million, many of them to dispose of similar powders.

In taking on environmental cleanup jobs, contractors often bring needed expertise to technical tasks the Pentagon isn’t equipped to do itself. They also absorb much of the legal responsibility for disposing of military-made hazards, in some cases helping the Pentagon — at least on paper — winnow down its list of toxic liabilities.

But in outsourcing this work, the military has often struggled to provide adequate oversight to ensure that work is done competently — or is completed at all. Today, records show, some of the most dangerous cleanup work that has been entrusted to contractors remains unfinished, or worse, has been falsely pronounced complete, leaving people who live near former military sites to assume these areas are now safe.

What the EPA inspector found when he visited Barksdale was an object lesson in the system’s blind spots.

Barrels of the waste hadn’t been shipped off and recycled, but rather were stored in a garage tucked away from the facility’s main operations. Further, shipping documents suggested that what waste had been sent off the base hadn’t gone to U.S. Technology’s recycling plant in Ohio, as an Air Force official first told the EPA, but instead had gone to company warehouses in at least two other states. Storing hazardous waste without a permit — and without immediately recycling it — can be illegal.

The inspection findings triggered an investigation to determine if the Air Force had been storing hazardous waste that it was supposed to have been recycling without a permit. It also suggested broader problems with U.S. Technology, which was already the subject of an inquiry in Georgia into whether it was illegally dumping waste — including material that could have come from Barksdale — near a residential neighborhood there.

Barksdale officials told ProPublica that the base “has never stored” hazardous materials at the request of U.S. Technology. The Air Force and the Pentagon declined to answer any specific questions about U.S. Technology’s work, except to say that the base had been working with the company for at least a decade.

ProPublica pieced together what happened at Barksdale using EPA records, including a 1,000-page document compiled by one of its lead investigators, as well as Air Force correspondence, court files, Pentagon contracts and other materials.

The documents make clear that officials at Barksdale should have been wary of doing business with U.S. Technology from the start. The head of one of its sub-contractors had been sent to prison in 2008 for illegally dumping hazardous waste under another Pentagon contract. U.S. Technology had been investigated for related wrongdoing — storing or dumping material it claimed to be recycling — in two other states. Indeed, a 2011 Pentagon report to Congress about contractor fraud included U.S. Technology on a list of companies that had criminal or civil judgments against them, but which still received millions of dollars in subsequent contracts.

Neither the Air Force nor the Pentagon would respond to questions about why the various military branches continued to award contracts to U.S. Technology despite its problems.

The EPA also would not say whether it was looking into U.S. Technology’s contracts with other bases — deals involving millions of pounds of toxic powder and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars — but such a step might well be prudent.

In April, U.S. Technology’s founder and president, Raymond Williams, was indicted in U.S. District Court in Missouri for trucking millions of pounds of its hazardous powder waste — from Defense and other types of contracts — over state lines, where, according to EPA documents, the company had been storing it instead of recycling it. In June, Williams was indicted in Georgia on federal charges related to bribing an Air Force official for recycling contracts. Williams has pleaded not guilty in both cases.

Asked about Barksdale and other contracts that have gone awry, one of the Pentagon’s top environmental officials told ProPublica that  . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by Leisureguy

27 September 2017 at 10:59 am

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