Washington, DC — The U.S. Army knew that the site chosen to build a family housing complex at Fort Wainwright was a toxic dump but proceeded anyway, in violation of federal laws and service policies, according to an audit by the Army’s own Office of Staff Judge Advocate that was released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Despite creating a hugely expensive debacle, sickening workers, spreading pollution and retaliating against whistleblowers, the base command has absolved itself and issued an “outstanding” rating to the official who green-lighted the project.
The January 2007 Army audit questioned “the wisdom of building a family housing complex on top of a known 1950s-era military landfill” and concluded that “the situation with the Taku construction project is the direct result of multiple individuals failing to adhere to Army and federal regulations and guidance.”
Nonetheless, the Army command excused the failures at Fort Wainwright by issuing a report just six months later which dismissed any major concerns but skipped over most of the audit findings, including –
- Construction workers became ill at both Taku Gardens and another toxic hotspot because the projects were not slowed to properly analyze the sites. As with the illnesses, worker safety in digging through unexploded ordnance was dismissed with one base official stating “if a bulldozer did encounter a live artillery shell, it would simply scare the driver.”
- The Taku project discharged polluted runoff directly into the Chena River while improper disposal of toxic soils, drums and other debris spread contamination beyond the work site; and
- When a top environmental official at the base opposed the project, she was bypassed, harassed and ultimately removed. The environmental director who pushed the project through, however, was allowed to transfer with no sanction and an “outstanding” evaluation, provided that he did not “disclose any specific information regarding the PCB” at Taku Gardens.
The audit stated that the base “Command is at risk of being assessed significant environmental fines. Some [base] personnel appear to be at risk of criminal prosecution… More significantly, [Fort Wainwright] military families in desperate need of housing will not be able to occupy the constructed units for several years – if at all.” Slightly more than half of the planned 128 units on the 54-acre Taku Gardens site were built before construction was halted and these may ultimately have to be torn down.
“The experience at Taku Gardens demonstrates that accountability remains an elusive concept in the U.S. Army,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that taxpayers might end up losing $150 million on a complex that may never be occupied. “This audit report is Exhibit A for the case of why military agencies should not be exempt from pollution laws and why strict civilian oversight is essential.”
PEER had requested all internal investigations of Taku Gardens back in November 2007 under the Freedom of Information Act, but the Army produced only two reports (one damning and the other exonerating) and did not even mention the audit. Last month, PEER asked the Department of Defense Inspector General to step into the case and is now supplementing its complaint to include the audit findings and why the Army hid them.