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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

In a move that could set a national precedent, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Northeast Administrator has ordered the National Guard to halt training exercises at Camp Edwards on Cape Cod, Massachusestts. The Guard’s artillery range sits on top of the Cape's sole drinking water supply, and contaminants from spent shells are showing up in the surrounding soil and groundwater. The National Guard has asked the federal EPA to rescind the order. Living On Earth’s Liz Lempert has more.


CURWOOD: The northeast regional administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency recently ordered the Massachusetts National Guard to halt most operations at Camp Edwards, its training base on Cape Cod. This artillery practice range sits on top of the Cape's major drinking water supply, and contaminants from spent shells are showing up in the surrounding soil and ground water. The National Guard is appealing the ban to the EPA in Washington. The case is being closely watched, as it could set a precedent for the military's ability to reject oversight of its environmental affairs. Living on Earth's Liz Lempert has our story.

LEMPERT: Just 35 feet of porous, sandy soil separates the toxic remnants of spent artillery from Cape Cod's water supply. Royal Dutch Explosive, an ingredient in rat poison and munitions, has already been found in spots at levels 10 times the EPA limit. Lead, and the possible carcinogen TNT, have also been found at elevated levels. John DeVillars, EPA's northeast administrator, issued the order to close down the firing range.

DEVILLARS: It's quite clear what the sources are, and it is the military activity in that area. That's why we're asking them, and, and now directing them, to suspend those activities until we can have a better understanding of what the public health risk is.

LEMPERT: The National Guard has already begun to sample ground water, and to switch to non-exploding rounds, which are less toxic. Dan Allen, a spokesman for the National Guard, says EPA's order goes too far. He argues it makes more sense to keep the firing range open until scientists can show the levels of contamination are unsafe, something the EPA has not done. But John DeVillars says the Cape's water supply is dwindling. Past military activities have already polluted part of the aquifer, so strong action is needed to protect the rest.

DEVILLARS: It would be hard to find a place, not just on Cape Cod, but in New England, ah, arguably in America, where this kind of activity, is more inappropriate, given the resource that is so close to this area and the fragility, of that resource.

LEMPERT: Without its firing range, Camp Edwards would shut down, and thousands of troops who train there would have to go elsewhere, a dreadful prospect, says Dan Allen.

ALLEN: These are citizen-soldiers who have jobs. They don't get off work till Friday at 5 o'clock, and to have them try and drive, potentially hundreds of miles to get to, a training site, and then, fit all that training into a weekend, that is a danger to the troops, and, ah, would definitely affect the training.

DEVILLARS: I've got to say that, while I'm sympathetic to the logistical difficulties that the military faces here, my sympathy really lies, in this case, with the logistical difficulties that, people are facing, trying to find alternative water supplies, or worrying about, whether their kids are going to, come down with cancer as a consequence of living in that area and swimming in the ponds.

LEMPERT: The military's biggest concern is the precedent the case would set. Neighbors of bases in Wisconsin and Michigan have also complained that munitions are polluting their water. Spokesman Dan Allen:

ALLEN: If it happens here, it could happen at any post across the United States, stating that each and every action that's being performed on that post, be proven safe before it can continue.

LEMPERT: Pressure on the EPA is mounting, with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee siding with the National Guard. Negotiations between the parties continue in Washington this week. For Living on Earth, I'm Liz Lempert.



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