The Devastating Impact of Environmental Racism and Injustice on Veterans and Communities of Color Living Near Military Bases

Guest post by Chandler Blythe Duncan

As a concept, environmental racism grew out of grassroots activism, utilizing people in a certain district, region, or community to bring about political or economic change. The term ‘Environmental Racism’ was coined in 1982 by civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin Chavis after he and other environmental activists participated in a protest against the presence of a chemical landfill in Warren County, North Carolina. Although it was unsuccessful, the protest was acknowledged by national civil rights leaders and environmentalists. Today, it is known as the birthplace of the Environmental Justice Movement.

Environmental racism occurs when there is a disproportionate impact of toxic exposure on people of color. While there have been many debates on whether poverty or race is the main cause of environmental racism, mounting evidence shows that race is the most reliable indicator of a group’s proximity to pollution. Due to the unavailability of affordable land, historical discrimination, and the lack of political power to fight large corporations, people of color often have to live near industrial sites, ports, truck routes, and contaminated military bases. Across the United States, there are 679 military installations heavily polluted with toxic chemicals.

Camp Lejeune Had Been a Pollution Hotspot for Almost 35 Years

Built in 1942, Camp Lejeune covers 153,439 acres in Jacksonville, North Carolina. The original mission of the facility was to train future Marines and Sailors for impending World War II. Camp Lejeune is still operational today, continuing to prepare service members for potential conflicts. However, since the middle of the last century, it has been contaminated with toxic chemicals such as trichloroethylene, benzene, perchloroethylene, vinyl chloride, and PFAS.

The source of PFAS, a group of dangerous, long-lasting chemicals at Camp Lejeune, also known as “forever chemicals,” was the use of firefighting foam (AFFF). The foam, which is used to fight class B fires, contains between 50% and 98% PFAS, and once these chemicals end up in the environment, they may take over a thousand years to break down. The highest PFAS level ever measured at the military base was 172,000 parts per trillion, which is over 2,450 times greater than the safe exposure limit.

ABC One-Hour Cleaners, a dry-cleaning firm located near Camp Lejeune, improperly used and disposed of industrial solvents near the military installation. The highest trichloroethylene level at Camp Lejeune exceeded the safe exposure limit by 280 times. At the same time, the perchloroethylene level eclipsed the safe exposure limit by 43 times. Even though the military base had been severely contaminated since the 1950s, it was only in 1982 that the Marine Corps found volatile organic compounds at Camp Lejeune.

Between 1953 and 1987, roughly one million people lived at Camp Lejeune, all of whom were potentially exposed to toxins. The health consequences of exposure to these hazardous chemicals include liver cancer, renal toxicity, prostate cancer, leukemia, aplastic anemia, female infertility, lung cancer, and scleroderma. Communities living near the military base are also at risk for exposure. 

Black Service Members, Considerably More Susceptible to Experience the Health Impact of Toxic Exposure

In 1941, the military was in great need of recruits, as World War II was fast approaching, but there was a problem – racial discrimination was the norm, so the new service members could not be of color. Following a march in Washington meant to pressure the head of the state to open up the defense industry to black people, President Franklin Roosevelt prohibited racial discrimination in the military and the government. As a result, over 20,000 black individuals began training at Montford Point, a segregated military facility now part of Camp Lejeune.

Montford Point had inferior living conditions compared to Camp Lejeune and was considered unsanitary. Furthermore, black service members were prohibited from Camp Lejeune unless with a white Marine. Even though racial discrimination had been officially prohibited within the military, it was ever present on military bases.

Anyone can enlist in the military today, but racism is still a major problem. Consider the disproportionally small number of service members of color who are officers. Black people represent 13% of the American population and 19% of all enlisted military personnel. However, only 9% are officers compared to 76% of white individuals with this rank. According to recent Pentagon and Veterans Affairs data, black service members have fewer opportunities to become officers.

Black people enlist in the military at a higher rate than other racial groups, but unlike their peers, they are severely underrepresented among officer ranks. This places black service members at a greater risk of experiencing serious injuries, including developing illnesses caused by toxic exposure on military bases. While most high-rank service members – officers, lieutenants, generals – do not have to live on military bases, low-rank service members have no other choice. Consequently, black service members are more likely to be affected by toxic exposure.

The Communities Living Close to Military Bases Are Also Vulnerable

People of color experience a 28% greater health burden than the general population. While black families breathe in 56% more polluted air than they generate, Latinos inhale 63% more. On the other hand, white people breathe in 17% less pollution than they produce.

In 2020, the population of Jacksonville, North Carolina, was 74,313. Out of these people, 13,734 are black, and 12,700 are Latino. Camp Lejeune is currently home to 170,000 service members, civilians, and military family members. Half of the population of Jacksonville lives at the military base. In other words, 85,000 North Carolinians are exposed daily to the harmful chemicals that still lurk on Camp Lejeune, although in lower concentrations. The surrounding communities are not safe either, as the toxic agents contaminating the military installation have found their way into the nearby air and soil over the years.

Between 2016 and 2020, the military covertly incinerated 20 million pounds of AFFF waste in multiple states, endangering the health of disadvantaged communities. No scientific evidence pertains to the fact that incineration can destroy PFAS. The largest amount of toxic waste was burnt in Cohoes, New York.

How We Can Fight Environmental Racism and Injustice

Approximately one-third of the worldwide disease burden is attributed to toxic environmental exposure. The most powerful and effective solutions to environmental racism and injustice are:

  • Education
  • Providing a platform to amplify the voices of people of color where they can express their opinions and propose their own solutions
  • Holding businesses responsible for turning a blind eye to the unsafe living conditions they create for disadvantaged communities

Since endeavors to discourage environmental crime by enforcing stricter laws are usually met with strong opposition from corporations whose main priority is financial profit, private law can help disenfranchised communities through toxic tort and class action lawsuits. A successful recipe to combat environmental racism and injustice may entail grassroots efforts and collaboration with legal groups and private firms.

About the Author

Chandler Blythe Duncan is a lawyer specializing in toxic exposure litigation at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. She assists veterans and military families to recover compensation for the illnesses they came to struggle with due to toxic exposure. The lawyer also has a Master of Public Health degree, which she earned from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Chandler Blythe Duncan is a member of the Birmingham Volunteer Lawyers Program, the American Bar Association, and the Birmingham Bar Association.

Image credit: Susan Melkisethian 

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