Are You Sure the Kennedys Live Around Here?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, August 1997

Are You Sure the Kennedys Live Around Here?

After 62 years of shelling on New England's summer playground, the EPA orders the military to hold its fire
By Douglas Whynott

It's a sunny day on Cape Cod, sea air wafting in on a gentle breeze, and a military jeep lumbers along "Tank Alley." Howitzer fire has torn up the road; the ground all around is cratered from blasts. Shells protrude from the soil like rocks, and the scrub pines are scorched from burn after burn. Just ahead lie a blown-up tank, and a crane in shards, and a pile of spent howitzer shells. A red flag indicates an undetonated mortar round. The driver, a professional military man, says he's been giving a lot of tours lately and jokes that if he could get $50 a head for this, he'd be rich.

Surprisingly, the sudden interest has come not from military buffs, but from concerned citizens, environmentalists, and local media. Tank Alley, a part of the so-called Impact Area, and all other weapons ranges in the Massachusetts Military Reservation, which sits on 22,000 acres in the western part of Cape Cod, have been under a cease-fire since the Environmental Protection Agency issued an order late in the spring to halt the use of live ammunition and explosives on the base. Though this may not at first glance seem like major news, both the Pentagon and environmentalists say that this is a noteworthy event indeed. After all, the EPA order is unprecedented — it's believed that no government agency has ever before restricted military training, certainly not for environmental reasons. The military, of course, has cried foul, arguing that its ability to conduct operations at the reservation — the primary weapons-training facility for National Guard troops from all six New England states — is vital to national security; the Guard is considering an appeal to Attorney General Janet Reno, arguing that the EPA overstepped its jurisdiction. Environmentalists, meanwhile, are seizing on the EPA's action, vowing to use it as precedent in fights to shut down weapons training in such far-flung locales as Michigan's Camp Grayling and California's Fort Ord. "In the post-Cold War world," says Lenny Siegel, a military analyst at San Francisco State University and head of a watchdog group involved with military-base environmental projects, "the military is going to have to realize that its needs are no longer the top priority."

But while the Massachusetts Military Reservation is similar to many other bases, it's also somewhat unusual, because it sits atop the largest aquifer on the Cape, which supplies water to six towns, some 70,000 households and businesses, and an estimated 200,000 people during the summer months. The EPA wants to use the cease-fire to conduct the most thorough ground test the agency has ever performed, attempting to determine whether the use of live weaponry over the last 62-plus years has polluted the soil and, by extension, the groundwater — a discovery that would be none too surprising, given the base's history. The reservation has been a national Superfund site since 1989, though the focus has been not on the artillery ranges, but on the southern part of the base around its airfields, where despite the $165 million that has so far been spent on cleanup efforts, 79 hazardous waste sites and 11 underground toxic plumes (slow-moving chemical masses) still foul the landscape. One plume, which has spread from the base's landfill, has enveloped two municipal wells. In the town of Falmouth, 250 private wells have been spoiled, and another 350 in Mashpee. The military has paid to connect some homes to untainted municipal water supplies and donated bottled water to others. All told, an estimated three million gallons of water are polluted daily. Then there's the matter of elevated cancer rates in towns around the base — 24 percent higher than the Massachusetts average for cancer of all types on the Upper Cape, a 300 percent higher rate of pancreatic cancer in men in nearby Buzzards Bay.

As a result, the military now finds itself with a rather uncomfortable mission: giving citizen tours of the Impact Area. On this bright summer day, a convoy of three vehicles moves along the dirt roads in the northern part of the base. John DeVillars, the EPA's New England regional administrator and the man most directly responsible for the shutdown, is in one of the vehicles, sitting directly behind base commander Colonel Gregory Dadak.

The trucks stop at CS-18 (Chemical Spill 18), a firing site where substances associated with the propellant DNT were found in a concentration of 17,000 parts per billion. "The EPA considers one part per billion worthy of attention," DeVillars says. His look is direct, his eyes a robin's-egg blue. He combines an astute intelligence with a laid-back manner, and he seems to be capable of making inflammatory statements without inflammatory effect. Colonel Dadak has come along because of DeVillars, whom he regards politely yet with a slight air of suspicion.

The group moves along to CS-19, a rocket dump in the Impact Area where test wells have already been drilled. Here RDX, or Royal Dutch Explosive, has been found in groundwater at 11 times the levels considered hazardous by the EPA. "I do not disagree with the concept that we have to be environmentally safe," Colonel Dadak says. But he believes that much of the effort is the result of antimilitary politics clothed in environmentalism, that the true goal is the nationwide closure of bases. Dadak maintains that "these are the cleanest 22,000 acres on Cape Cod," and though he may not look it in his battle fatigues, he is a 25-year resident of the Cape who owns a house outside the base, runs a small cranberry bog — and doesn't drink the tap water. Still, he says with a chuckle, his oft-repeated remarks about the base's cleanliness have earned him an invitation to the army's Environmental Communications Training, involving simulated New England town meetings complete with simulated ranting-and-raving townspeople. "It's been quite antagonistic," he explains.

DeVillars vows that this will soon change. He says that the EPA order has shifted the burden of proof to the military and thus will bring a sort of glasnost regarding future use of the base. "Of course," he says, "with the military mentality for secrecy, this is just the sort of thing that makes their skin crawl."

Nonetheless, in this there is perhaps the kernel of what could be a growing trend: an attempt to force the military to manage its vast bases as natural resources. "The military needs to develop a sustainable approach to firing-range management," explains Siegel. "They can no longer be held to a different standard than those who cut down trees or fish for cod."

Photograph by Chris Hartlove

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