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The Military Drinking-Water Crisis the White House Tried to Hide

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Emily Atkin reports in the New Republic:

The Trump administration feared it would be a “public relations nightmare”: a major federal study that concluded contaminated groundwater across the country, especially near military bases, was more toxic than the government realized. Political aides to President Donald Trump and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt pressured the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry against releasing the results.

“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” an unidentified White House aide wrote, according to Politico. “The impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful. We cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.” The study was not released.

That is, until Wednesday. Amid a media firestorm about the administration’s immigration policy, the ATSDR—a division of the Department of Health and Human Services—quietly published its 852-page review of perfluoroalkyls, or PFAS, which are “used in everything from carpets and frying pan coatings to military firefighting foams,” according to ProPublica. “All told, the report offers the most comprehensive gathering of information on the effects of these chemicals today, and suggests they’re far more dangerous than previously thought.”

These chemical compounds pose health risks to millions of Americans. They’re in roughly 1 percent of the nation’s public water supply, according to the EPA; in roughly 1,500 drinking water systems across the country, according to the Environmental Working Group. People who drink from these systems, even if their exposure to PFAS is low, now have a potentially increased risk of cancer; of disruptions in hormones and the immune system; and of complications with fetal development during pregnancy.

But military personnel and veterans are particularly at risk, because PFAS compounds are in firefighting foams, which have been used in training exercises at military bases across America since the 1970s. Those foams have leached into the groundwater at the military facilities, and often the drinking water supply. Nearly three million Americans get their drinking water from Department of Defensesystems.

The DOD has reported widespread contamination at its bases and posts, as well as their surrounding areas. In a March report to the House Armed Services Committee, the department provided a list of 126 military facilities where nearby water supplies contained PFAS levels above the EPA’s standard, and 36 bases with drinking water contamination on site. “In all, 25 Army bases50 Air Force bases49 Navy or Marine Corps bases and two Defense Logistics Agency sites have tested at higher than acceptable levels for the compounds in either their drinking water or groundwater sources,” the Military Times reported.

The EPA had been assuring people who lived on these bases that they were safe from the potentially harmful effects of PFAS—which range in severity from weight gain to liver disease to cancer—at levels of 70 parts per trillion. But the new ATSDR study says safe levels were actually much lower, from 7 to 11 parts per trillion.

“It’s pretty pervasive problem,” Melanie Benesch, a legislative attorney at the Environmental Working Group, told me. “It’s getting into the groundwater and tap water on bases, so people living on base are of course affected.” Military personnel often live on bases with their families, so those drinking contaminated water can include pregnant women and children—two populations especially vulnerable to PFAS. And these compounds can remain in the body for six to ten years. “Veterans who have since moved off likely continue to have it in their bodies,” Benesch said.

In 2016, the Grand Rapids Press spoke to several veterans who blamed various health problems—spinal defects, thyroid problems, and hypertension—on PFAS-contaminated water at Wurtsmith Air Force Base. They began connecting the dots when, that February, Michigan officials warned against consuming well water near the facility due to the presence of the compounds. “We thought that if anything was wrong, of course someone would tell us,” one veteran said. “It feels like we’ve been betrayed.”

Since becoming aware of PFAS contamination, the DOD has “shut down wells, provided alternate water sources, or installed water treatment systems” at 11 military installations, according to a 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office. But despite that progress, “the pace of actual cleanup has been quite slow,” the Berkeley School of Law said in a report cited by the Center for Public Integrity. “Most of the time and money has been spent studying the problem,” the report added.

That time and money is wasted when those studies are delayed unnecessarily, Benesch said. “It was ready six months ago,” she said. “Six months that the government agency responsible for setting these levels, for doing the toxicology, was not able to provide us with their findings.” Providing the study earlier would have forced the EPA to consider changing its regulations sooner, Benesch said. Had parents and pregnant women on military bases known about the study, perhaps more of them would have avoided the tap water.

What, then, did the study’s temporary suppression achieve for Trump and Pruitt? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 June 2018 at 9:46 am

Trump Is Sabotaging a Veterans’ Health Care Law He Just Signed

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The problem of a president with a short attention span. Suzanne Gordon and Jasper Craven report in the Washington Monthly:

Last Wednesday, Donald Trump gathered lawmakers, veterans’ advocates, and journalists in the White House Rose Garden to bask in an elusive political victory with the signing of the VA Mission Act.

The law was forged with bipartisan input and was backed by 38 veterans service organizations. It also received overwhelming Democratic support. Only two of the 42 members of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee opposed the bill when it came up for a vote. Those lawmakers—Rep. Tim Walz and Sen. Bernie Sanders—still applauded many of the law’s statutes, from its expansion of the VA caregiver program for post 9/11 veterans to the raising of limits on a debt reduction program aimed at attracting doctors to the agency.

These lawmakers expressed concerned that the law will make permanent the privatizing principles set forth in the 2014 VA Choice Act, an emergency measure passed to ensure timely care for veterans following a wait time scandal at a hospital in Phoenix. The Choice Act has caused even longer wait times for veterans and has diverted funds from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) budget that could have been used to remediate the agency’s long-standing capacity problems—the agency is currently operating with over 36,000 vacancies.

“This bill provides $5 billion for the Choice program,” Sen. Sanders said in a statement announcing his opposition. “It provides nothing to fill the vacancies at the VA. That is wrong. My fear is that this bill will open the door to the draining, year after year, of much needed resources from the VA.”

The Trump administration was closely involved in shaping the bill and getting it passed, and the president signed the bill on the 74th anniversary of D-Day while casting it as a fulfillment of the nation’s moral obligation to those who have served.

Yet, behind Trump’s pledged commitment to those who have served is a White House working to undermine care for veterans. Lawmakers and veterans advocates accustomed to more constructive policymaking have been caught on their heels by a series of frenzied Trumpian maneuvers.

After Trump signed the VA Mission Act into law, it entered the guardianship of the executive branch. Immediately, the White House began backtracking on some of the law’s requirements, and now advocates are worried that key statues could be misinterpreted or implemented so to further the conservative fever dream in which the only choice left for veterans seeking health care is the private sector.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been working behind the scenes to scuttle bipartisan efforts to fund the Mission Act’s expansive new programs—which Trump claims to support. A White House memo circulated in Congress during the drafting process asserted that Trump would not support the expansion of one key program “without further engagement with Congress on fiscal constraints.” It went on to say that new spending on private care should be offset by other agency cuts.

Calls for fiscal conservatism have taken a harder edge in recent days. Hours before Trump signed the VA Mission Act, the Washington Post reported that the White House was opposing efforts to raise spending caps on the VA budget to pay for the law’s new programs, claiming that the money can be found in current agency allocations.

The VA Mission Act will expand caregiver benefits to thousands of new families and result in more than 600,000 additional veterans seeking care in the first few years after its passage—policymakers estimate that if new money isn’t allocated for these programs, more than $50 billion could be plundered from other VA programs over the next five years. (This is not the first time the Trump administration has worked to ransack the VA budget: last Winter, former VA Secretary David Shulkin attempted to shift a half-billion dollars in VA money earmarked to help homeless veterans into the agency’s Choice account, which funds private sector appointments.)

Republican and Democratic leaders on the Senate Appropriations Committee are still hopeful a bipartisan effort can move forward to allocate the required money for the VA Mission Act, though there’s talk that House Speaker Paul Ryan and his nest of fiscal hawk acolytes may still squawk over the new money.

“The law has to be properly funded,” said Rick Weidman, executive director of policy and government affairs of the group Vietnam Veterans for America. “If it is not, the only way to pay for the huge cost of privatization will be to make a lot of people who depend on VA care ineligible by retracting eligibility for care only to combat veterans who have service related conditions.”

Hours after the bill was signed, the White House announced it would ignore some of the law’s oversight statutes, including one that granted congressional input over future pilot programs with private partners. The White House also nixed a statute requiring input from Congress and veterans’ organizations for a newly-established commission tasked with recommending the future infrastructure requirements of the agency. The makeup of the commission is hugely important, since the commission’s recommendations, if approved by the president, would be directly implemented by the VA secretary without congressional approval. The recommendations could include . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 June 2018 at 8:53 am

An Alarming Tip About a Neo-Nazi Marine, Then an Uncertain Response

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A.C. Thompson and Ali Winston report in ProPublica:

It was Oct. 29, 2017, when Ed Beck decided he had to contact the military police.

For weeks, Beck had been tracking the online life of a 21-year-old lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps. He said he had concluded the young man, a North Carolina native named Vasillios Pistolis, was deeply involved in neo-Nazi and white supremacist activities.

Beck said he had compiled an exhaustive dossier on the young Marine, tracing the evolution of Pistolis’ racist worldview over recent years and linking him to violent altercations at the bloody white power rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August. The most recent piece of evidence, Beck said, was a fresh video that appeared to show Pistolis standing alongside a leader of the Traditionalist Worker Party, a fascist group, during a confrontation with an interracial couple at a restaurant in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee.

Beck was well-positioned both to be offended by Pistolis’ alleged conduct and to report it: Beck had served in the Marines from 2002 through 2006, including a tour in Iraq. In fact, he’d been assigned to the 2nd Marine Logistics Unit, the same unit in which Pistolis was serving.

Beck said he contacted the authorities at the unit’s headquarters, Camp Lejeune, a large Marine installation on the North Carolina coast, and spoke briefly with an investigator for the post’s military police.

“I told them what I had seen him do, the evidence I had,” recalled Beck.

Beck said he offered to share his dossier with Marine detectives, but they didn’t take him up on the offer.

After the phone conversation, he said, “I never heard a thing.”

Beck’s phone bill, which he provided to ProPublica and Frontline, shows that he spoke multiple times with personnel at Camp Lejeune on Oct. 29. The records indicate that he received a brief six-minute call from military police at 9:24 that night.

More than six months later, Pistolis is still serving in the Marines.

At this juncture, it’s unclear precisely what steps if any the Marines took after Beck alerted them to Pistolis. What is certain is that in May, after ProPublica and Frontline featured Pistolis in a joint report about his violent involvement in the white power movement, the Marines said they were investigating Pistolis.

Contacted last week about Beck’s claim of having alerted the military authorities about Pistolis last fall, officials offered varying accounts.

One military official indicated that police at Camp Lejeune and detectives with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the unit that handles felony-level offenses in the Navy and Marines, had been diligently investigating Pistolis since receiving the information about him from Beck. Another person with knowledge of the matter, an officer with the Marine Corps, indicated that Pistolis had been questioned by NCIS, but that detectives found no connection to any organized groups or evidence that he posed a threat.

In the end, NCIS acknowledged that Pistolis is today the subject of a criminal probe, but added little detail.

“We do not discuss ongoing investigations,” said Adam Stump, an NCIS spokesman. “Regarding the service member you have asked about, the investigation is still ongoing. We cannot discuss further.”

A spokesman for Pistolis’ unit, Samir Glenn-Roundtree, said, “Marines accused of activity counter to our standards and core values are entitled to a thorough and impartial review. We have no further information to provide as the investigation is still ongoing.”

ProPublica and Frontline’s reporting on Pistolis made clear the Marine has spent years in the white power movement, including a stint as a cell leader for the Atomwaffen Division, an armed white supremacist group that espouses political terrorism and the overthrow of the U.S. government. In confidential chats, Pistolis, who received expert rifleman certification during his basic training in 2016 and currently works as a water support technician, claimed to have assaulted four people at last summer’s rally in Charlottesville.

“Today cracked 3 skulls open with virtually no damage to myself,” Pistolis wrote on Aug. 12, 2017.

The young man’s double life came as a shock to Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, who shortly after the ProPublica and Frontline report asked the Pentagon to explain what it was doing to keep neo-Nazis out of the armed forces. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 May 2018 at 2:35 pm

Scott Pruitt Is At It Again

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Kevin Drum posts at Mother Jones:

Back in 2016, the EPA released a health advisory for a class of chemicals called PFOA and PFOS, setting a limit in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion. Over the past decade these chemicals have mostly been phased out, but years of use had poisoned the groundwater in many areas, which now have to be cleaned up.

Then, earlier this year, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a part of HHS, wrote a toxicological profile advising that drinking water limits should actually be much lower, in the range of 10-20 parts per trillion. The EPA level might be adequate for most people, they advised, but was too high for infants and breastfeeding mothers. Luckily, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, whatever his other faults, has declared that water safety is one of his signature priorities, so EPA embraced the new limits and instructed Superfund cleanup sites to implement them immediately.

Ha ha. Just kidding. Here’s what actually happened when the White House and EPA caught wind of the new report:

“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” one unidentified White House aide said in an email forwarded on Jan. 30 by James Herz, a political appointee who oversees environmental issues at the OMB. The email added: “The impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.

….Some of the biggest liabilities reside with the Defense Department, which used foam containing the chemicals in exercises at bases across the country. In a March report to Congress, the Defense Department listed 126 facilities where tests of nearby water supplies showed the substances exceeded the current safety guidelines. A government study concluding that the chemicals are more dangerous than previously thought could dramatically increase the cost of cleanups at sites like military bases and chemical manufacturing plants, and force neighboring communities to pour money into treating their drinking water supplies.

It’s been three months since ATSDR drafted its report. It still hasn’t been published.

The GOP cares nothing for the health and welfare of the public. What they do care about is manipulating public opinion in their favor without regard to the merits involved.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 May 2018 at 10:11 am

Get an Inside Look at the Department of Defense’s Struggle to Fix Pollution at More Than 39,000 Sites

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Abrahm Lustgarten reports in ProPublica:

This story first appeared in ProPublica’s monthly data newsletter. Sign up for that here.

For much of the past two years I’ve been digging into a vast, $70 billion environmental cleanup program run by the U.S. Department of Defense that tracks tens of thousands of polluted sites across the United States. In some places, old missiles and munitions were left buried beneath school grounds. In others, former test sites for chemical weapons have been repurposed for day care centers and housing developments. The oldest, dating to World War I, have faded into history, making it difficult to keep track of the pollution that was left behind.

For nearly 45 years, the Pentagon kept its program — the Defense Environmental Restoration Program — out of the spotlight, and most of these sites have never been scrutinized by the public. However, the agency has meticulously tracked its own efforts, recording them in a detailed internal database. We were the first to see it, ever. Now we’re sharing it with you.

The dataset includes details on more than 39,000 unique sites across more than 5,000 present and former military locations in every U.S. state and territory. The sites are literally in almost everyone’s backyard. And so while a few of the most notorious cleanup spots may be well-known, the tools included here can help local news outlets, the public or anyone else dive deep into the details of hidden threats that have never before seen light.

The detail is extraordinary: Contaminants — and sometimes their concentrations in both soil and water — are listed. So is the amount of money spent over decades to deal with the problems, and the budget estimated into the future to finish it. You can find managers responsible for incremental decision-making, or plot the coordinates of specific sites used for dumping or chemical spills. There are even data fields filled with comments — the wisecracks of Pentagon staffers over the years characterizing the enormity or seriousness of their tasks. And much, much more.

We used some of the data from the government’s database to plot these sites on a map of the United States, and to drill into each site with details on the contamination to be found there, including adding additional location and cost data from other sources. You may want to use the data in other ways: perhaps to focus on single sites in much more detail, charting cleanup progress and failures, funding endeavors and political turning points. For that, you can download the entire database, just as we received it from the Department of Defense. . .

Continue reading.

Interesting how the Department of Defense makes America less safe for its citizens.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2018 at 1:46 pm

How Many Civilians Did Trump Kill in Drone Strikes Last Year?

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That’s from a post by Kevin Drum:

From the Washington Post:

The Trump administration has chosen to ignore an executive order that requires the White House to issue an annual report on the number of civilians and enemy fighters killed by American counterterrorism strikes. The mandate for the report, which was due May 1, was established by former president Barack Obama in 2016 as part of a broader effort to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding drone operations in places such as Yemen, Somalia and Libya….The decision on the civilian casualty report is part of a broader shift in U.S. counterterrorism policy to withhold more information about U.S. drone strikes and the rules governing them, reversing Obama-era policies dating to 2013.

I think we can guess why the Trump administration is hesitant to release this report. Via Airwars, here’s an estimate of civilians killed in conventional airstrikes in Iraq and Syria: [see above – LG]

If civilian deaths from drone strikes are anything similar, Trump’s team is killing five to ten times as many civilians as Obama did. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 May 2018 at 4:16 pm

North Korea nuclear test site largely unusable

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The real reason Kim Jong-un has discontinued nuclear testing (for now). John Bowden reports in The Hill:

A North Korean nuclear test site recently shuttered by Pyongyang is unusable and will cause a catastrophe if another test occurs, according to a new report.

Chinese scientists studying the damage at the Punggye-ri facility estimate that another test at the facility will lead to “environmental catastrophe,” The Wall Street Journal reports.

Scientists say North Korea’s most recent test caused a partial collapse of a cavity inside the mountain facility, which would be further exacerbated by another blast, the newspaper added.

“The occurrence of the collapse should deem the underground infrastructure beneath mountain Mantap not be used for any future nuclear tests,” reads an abstract for the study published by the University of Science and Technology of China, according to the Journal.

North Korea experts at Johns Hopkins University, however, told the Journal that parts of the facility could still be fully functional and that testing could resume.

President Trump has touted the cessation of North Korea’s nuclear tests as a victory ahead of his planned talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un later this year. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2018 at 10:45 am

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