From January 1, 1935 to May 20, 1999, Fort McClellan, located near the town of Anniston, Alabama, served as a training ground and military base for the Army Military Police school, the Women’s Army Corps, and the U.S. Army Chemical Corps school, among others. Before it was closed as part of the Army Base Closure and Realignment Committee (BRAC) program, hundreds of thousands of soldiers passed through Fort McClellan. During their time there, they were exposed to toxins and chemical agents, including radioactive compounds cesium-137 and cobalt-60, mustard gas, and nerve agents (used for decontamination training and stored on the base), as well as PCBs from a Monsanto plant in Anniston. Now, years later, many soldiers who were stationed at Fort McClellan have found themselves with diverse and serious health problems, such as cancer, diabetes, fibromyalgia, multiple miscarriages, and genetic mutations that have caused birth defects in the children of these veterans. Some vets are disabled, some have died prematurely. What is being done to help the veterans, and why are there still people being exposed to these poisons today?
Nearby Anniston’s soil and water supply were rendered toxic by PCBs and dioxin emitted by the Monsanto plant between 1929 and 1971, and in parts of the area it is illegal to dig a well. Seventy acres in, around, and downstream of Anniston and the old Monsanto/Solutia plant are listed as a Superfund site by the EPA, and even more land around the sites is contaminated, because groundwater flows in a large area and PCBs don’t observe legal boundaries. In 2003, Monsanto (and its spinoff company, Solutia) settled a lawsuit out of court and agreed to pay $700 million to more than 20,000 residents of Anniston because of the PCB contamination. At the time, these companies were satisfied with the settlement because it helped them to avoid a lawsuit over contamination from polychlorinated biphenyls (an electrical insulator banned in the 1970s), and because they thought it would help them avoid bankruptcy and put them in a better position to address “upcoming liabilities.” Solutia went on to declare bankruptcy in the face of these costs. And worse yet, the Fort McClellan vets are specifically excluded from this settlement.
What are the liabilities that scared Monsanto so badly that they’d voluntarily pay $700 million and consider that a good position to be in? Could it be that they were afraid of facing repercussions from the government and the soldiers of Fort McClellan?
They need not have worried. There has been a bill before Congress, called the Fort McClellan Health Registry Act, since at least 2009, which is occasionally reintroduced only to die every time. All this bill would require, should it become law, is that all the Fort McClellan veterans be notified that the base is toxic, and provide some kind of outreach to help them get tests and care for various illnesses that could be linked to their exposure to the stew of toxins there. Yet somehow, this never comes to pass, and the government is relatively mum about the dangers these veterans are facing. It seems that the McClellan vets usually find out about their predicament through word of mouth and social media sites after wondering for years why they’re so sick.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs admits that exposure to high levels of the toxins stored at the base can cause adverse health effects, but that “there is no evidence of exposures of this magnitude having occurred at Fort McClellan” and that the exposure to the Anniston Monsanto pollution was “not expected to result in an increased cancer risk or other harmful health effects in people living in the neighborhoods outside the perimeter of the former PCB manufacturing facility.” Meanwhile, veterans seeking care at the VA are afraid to reveal that they had been stationed at Fort McClellan, because of reports of the VA routinely denying care or coverage in these cases.
It’s easy to discount the tragic stories of the sick and disabled veterans as hearsay, and to dismiss the news reports as conspiracy theory and anti-government rhetoric when they’re found on fringe and quack websites while the government is claiming minimal effect. But then, it took them a long time to stop calling the Vietnam vets crazy when they talked about Agent Orange, too. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes, and some conspiracies turn out to be true. One thing is for sure: these brave men and women stepped forward to put themselves between their people and danger. To let them sicken and die in this manner should not befit a country like the United States of America. It is time to take responsibility and care for our Fort McClellan veterans just as they took it upon themselves to protect us. To take the cowardly and cheap way out demeans the veterans who have given enough already.
The Fort Mac Vets of Fort McClellan and HR 2622