We Are All Expendable: U.S. Military Environmental Pollution from Okinawa to Camp Minden and Colfax

By Mike Stagg

Organizers at the No War 2017 Conference invited me to speak at their conference at American University in Washington on September 23. Dr. Brian Salvatore of the group Concerned Citizens of Camp Minden nominated me and I was happy to tell the story of their success to a broader audience.

To download the presentation, click here.

There is no script with the presentation, so here’s what I said:

I was reading Chalmers Johnson’s “Blowback” when I received World Beyond War director David Swanson’s invitation to speak. In the book (which was written before 9/11/01), Johnson argued that in the early 21st Century, the United States would face ‘blowback’ for its foreign policy misadventures in the 20th Century.

He spends a fair amount of attention in the book focusing on the U.S. military occupation of the Japanese island of Okinawa. Johnson says the U.S. has severely polluted the island in the more than half-century since the military essentially confiscated much of the island.

The connecting tissue between Okinawa and the Army’s proposal to do an open burn of 16,000.000 pounds of munitions and propellant at Camp Minden is that the impact of its action on local civilians and the environment did not figure in their considerations of various courses of action. Both civilians and the environment were expendable.

The October 15, 2012, explosion that rocked Camp Minden and all of the ArkLaTex was the result of a botched attempt to dispose of the munitions there. The company that had the original contract did little more than store the materials in bunkers and the open air.

After the explosion, the Army proposed to burn the materials in the open air — about 80,000 pounds per day for 200 days. Camp Minden is 15,000 acres located less than 30 miles from Shreveport and is even closer to Barksdale Air Force Base where a substantial portion of the U.S. B-52 bomber fleet is stationed.

The heroes of the successful effort to force a cleaner burn were Dr. Salvatore and Frances Kelley. Salvatore is the LSU Shreveport chemistry professor who identified the very real public health threats posed by the proposed burns. Frances Kelley developed and ran the grassroots action campaign that had citizens calling federal and state elected officials and bureaucrats pressing for a disposal process that did not threaten the health and well-being of the million people who live within what would have been the fallout zone resulted from the open burn.

U.S. Military bases (in red) on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Image via Wikipedia.

Then-Senator David Bitter and then-Congressman John Fleming were the useful idiots who helped spare the Louisiana citizens who faced an imminent threat from the open burn. Neither Vitter nor Fleming had any interest in protecting people or the environment, but their ideological opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was used by the activists to get the federal agency to act to protect the people of Northwest Louisiana.

The Army, the EPA and the Louisiana National Guard (technically, the owner of Camp Minden) agreed to implement a high-pressure burn process at Camp Minden and contracted to have a burn chamber transported to the site to conduct the burns.

In April of 2017, the burning of the portion of the materials at Camp Minden was completed.

It was not a complete victory because of the limitations of the monitoring of the burning at the site, but also because a portion of the materials from Camp Minden were sent to an open burn facility in the Grant Parish town of Colfax, Louisiana.

Colfax’s main claim to fame is that it was the site of the Colfax Massacre which became the model for the armed white supremacist insurrection that ultimately ended Reconstruction in the South.

A Massachusetts company, Clean Harbors, burned about 400,000 pounds of the materials from Camp Minden at an existing facility in Colfax — with the consent of local government leaders who decided they wanted the jobs more than they cared about the health and well-being of their constituents. It’s an all-too-familiar Louisiana story.

Clean Harbors proclaims that it uses the latest technology at its facilities. The photo of their Colfax site (from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality) indicates that Clean Harbors considers fire to be a recent invention.

I directed people to the podcast of my interview Brian Salvatore and provided my contact information on the final screen.

The presentation was well-received by the 200 or so people in attendance. It was live streamed from the event via Facebook. Conference organizers say they videos will remain on that page for the foreseeable future.

Check back later. I should have video of the presentation shot via a cellphone in the audience later.

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