U.S. Out Of North America! Closing Down And Converting a U.S. Military Base

Richard Hugus

March 9, 1999

It has taken twenty years of increasing evidence of the pollution of their water supplies to convince a majority of people on Cape Cod that new plans need to be made for the military base that has been a major cause of that pollution — the Massachusetts Military Reservation. Made up of Otis Air Base and Camp Edwards, the Massachusetts Military Reservation (MMR) was originally created in 1911 from farm, sheep pasture, and state forest land in the western, or “Upper” Cape Cod towns of Bourne, Sandwich, Mashpee, and Falmouth. Before these towns existed it was the land of the Wampanoag Indians, who did not presume to own it.

Unfortunately for residents today, a large portion of the 20,000 acres of land now occupied by the MMR is directly above the top of Upper Cape Cod’s sole-source aquifer. Aviation fuel, cleaning solvents, and explosives disposed of at the base since before World War II traveled through the Cape’s sandy soil into this aquifer, forming groundwater plumes which contaminated public and private water supply wells in each of the four towns of the Upper Cape. New groundwater plumes are being discovered each year; the total today is 16. From calculations done in 1994, when only 9 had been identified, it was estimated that 66 billion gallons of clean groundwater had already been polluted by the plumes, which travel at a rate of one to three feet per day from the top of the aquifer toward the sea. Each day, according to the estimate, another 8 million gallons of clean drinking water was being contaminated.

It has been widely acknowledged that such devastation poses a serious threat to future water supplies for the entire region. It is also undisputed that Upper Cape Cod has consistently high cancer elevations relative to state averages. Female lung cancer, for example, was 38% above the average for Massachusetts between 1987 and 1994. These elevations have yet to be explained, though past exposure to groundwater and air pollution from the base are leading hypotheses.

What has been the reaction of public officials? Local political leaders have a long history of accommodation of and complicity with the military, and the public health establishment has reached new heights at the MMR in the arts of foot-dragging and bungled study. Nevertheless, because the threat to public health could not be denied, EPA designated the base a National Priorities List Superfund site in 1989. This provided a legal framework for subsequent environmental investigation. In January 1997 the Cape Cod Times ran a pivotal six day series exposing the base as an “environmental disaster” whose officers were responsible for years of mismanaged cleanup, squandering of public funds, and betrayal of the public trust. In April 1997 EPA’s Regional Administrator, John DeVillars, ordered a ceasefire of Army artillery, mortar, and pyrotechnics pending the results of a Camp Edwards Impact Area Study. In 1998, responding to preliminary findings in the study that Army training had harmed potential water supplies in the northern part of the base at Camp Edwards — supplies which were to replace wells contaminated by toxics dumped by the Air Force in the southern part of the base — Congressman William Delahunt proposed that the entire 15,000 acres of Camp Edwards be converted to a wildlife refuge.

These positive developments would not have happened without what amounts to a popular resistance movement — a long-term, organized, and committed effort on the part of local residents to shine a light on the base, which was otherwise a fact of life to most Cape Codders, and beyond scrutiny. In a sane society, such effort would not have been necessary. But even in the face of polluted wells, high cancer rates, and water shortages, the military has remained, and it has done so because of support from a political establishment which holds the general public in contempt. Indeed, from the point of view of established power, there is no fire that can’t be put out with the proper combination of PR, intimidation, scapegoating, and bureaucracy.

As support gathered for the wildlife refuge among such mainstream groups as the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce and local conservation groups, the military responded with constant adjustments in its national security mission. Before, the military absolutely had to have a 2,200 acre impact area for high volume training with 8 inch and 155mm high-explosive artillery rounds; it required room for large mechanized maneuvers; it needed a mock city for urban warfare training. Now it only needs room for “men in boots” to walk around, taking care of the land, firing “green” munitions; it promotes its qualifications as “caretaker of the Upper Cape future water supply”; and it claims that Camp Edwards does not need to be converted to a wildlife refuge because it already is one. The propaganda of the military public affairs apparatus is as inventive as it is endless.

The devastation caused by the nine year United States war against Iraq — the bombing, the sanctions, the estimated 1.5 million dead — are either back page notes or not mentioned at all in the regional press. But due to intimidation by right wing voices claiming its coverage of the Upper Cape base in the past two years has been “one-sided”, the Cape Cod Times  recently ran a front page story on the brave pilots and their F-15 Eagle fighter jets at Otis Air Base preparing to go to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey in April to enforce the “no-fly” zones. This reporting is presented without any questioning whatever of the validity of the mission or, indeed, the genocidal intentions of U.S. policy in Iraq. On the local level the message is that at least this part of the base needs to remain open, since it is fulfilling a vital mission. In fact, neither the Air Force nor the Army have a valid mission at the MMR. The press has been forced into this compromise.

Last December the head of the Massachusetts National Guard, Adjutant General Raymond Vezina, expressed the right wing’s view that the initiative to convert Camp Edwards was the result of a huge hoax perpetrated by a few people with “a hidden agenda.” That agenda, were it to be named, would be Communism, but the word is not used. How many other causes fought for the good of the people and against the interests of entrenched power have been attacked in the same way! In an address last December to the Barnstable County Republican Club, General Vezina blew his top: “I’m sick and tired,” he said, “of dealing with four or five activists who, frankly, ought to be on another planet.” Vezina went on to appeal to the “silent majority” of Cape Codders to support the base, using the words of Richard Nixon when Nixon was attempting to claim that support existed for the U.S. war against Vietnam.

The Red Scare has not disappeared; it has only been put into code. “Community activist” contracted spells “communist.” Supporters of Camp Edwards write frequent opinion pieces saying such things as “the professional activists want to damage the military and close the base” and “subversives are selling us a song and dance with their ecological snow job on the American people, for their own ulterior purposes.” In fact, the term “anti-military” has been used so frequently to describe “community activists” that there seems to be no question that being opposed to the military is wrong. It is wrong by definition. The same tyranny has been exercised in the well-known term “anti-American” since the ‘50’s. By the way the argument is framed it is also wrong by definition to want to close a military base, though why this is so no one says. Patriots simply assert that the base must stay open, whether or not it has harmed members of the population it was supposed to protect, simply because our “national security” can’t be compromised. Their rallying cry is “Let’s remember Pearl Harbor.”

The age-old answer to progressive political change is to delay, weaken, and ultimately suffocate it with the giant mattress of state bureaucracy. Two years ago Governor William Weld’s Secretary of Environmental Affairs appointed a Community Working Group to look into possible future uses of the MMR. The group then began the business of holding public hearings on the subject. When Lieutenant Governor Paul Celluci succeeded Weld he responded to pressure to change a secret 10 year lease extension of Otis Air Base by saying that he would abide by any changes in base leases recommended by the Community Working Group, whose final report was due in September 1998. The Governor has the authority to negotiate lease agreements with the Department of Defense because he is the commander-in-chief of the Massachusetts National Guard and because the base’s 20,000 acres belongs to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

When the Community Working Group, after lengthy and thorough democratic process, finally recommended that use of 15,000 acres of the base, almost the whole of Camp Edwards, should have one clear priority — protection of future water supplies, Governor Celluci’s response was that he would continue to wait for the recommendations of the Community Working Group. In other words, he wasn’t hearing the recommendation he wanted. The reason? According to reports in the Boston Herald, Celluci had a significant gubernatorial campaign lobby in the Massachusetts National Guard which was run by a close friend, Adjutant General Vezina, who had  used his National Guard office for improper political fundraising. Celluci’s ties to the state National Guard continue to be more meaningful to him than his obligations to the people of Cape Cod and his promise to heed the Community Working Group’s recommendations.

The Governor’s hand will eventually be forced by legislation advanced by Cape Cod’s state representatives. This legislation, recently submitted, will transfer control of Camp Edwards from the National Guard to the Commonwealth’s Department of Environmental Management and create a regional water supply cooperative for the four Upper Cape towns. Thus, legal action which sprung from the demands of local citizens will bring an end to the use of state land for federal military purposes. Governor Celluci will eventually be backed into a corner. He must either sign or veto the legislation.

In a recent speech to announce his retirement, the Commander of Camp Edwards told an audience at a Camp Edwards gymnasium that he regretted leaving his troops behind with “enemy around the perimeter” — the enemy being the people of Cape Cod, the perimeter being the 20 miles of barbed wire fence keeping those people out. Before this the Commander, an attack helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, responded to involvement of surrounding residents in EPA-sponsored environmental investigations of Camp Edwards with clear paranoia. In order to keep one “community activist”, a local airplane mechanic, from flying over the base in his small plane, the Commander ordered a full-time “hot air space” designation above all of Camp Edwards to prevent any non-permitted use of the sky — the equivalent of a “no-fly zone.” The hot air space has been enforced for a year. Uniformed guards are posted full-time at each of the MMR’s three entrances to question and turn back all non-military personnel. To those outside the fence, the National Guard seems more and more like an occupying force under siege.

Meanwhile, the new Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has abrogated responsibility for major Upper Cape public health issues to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which has a reputation for doing nothing to address health problems at Superfund sites across the country, and is living up to that reputation at the MMR. The agency’s work at this base is funded by the Air Force, which dictates what can and can’t be put on the agenda of monthly meetings. The Air Force recently prevented health effects of its PAVE PAWS radar facility from even being discussed at an ATSDR meeting. The facility is about to be converted from Cold War to Star Wars status. But citizens have not given up on this or other issues. They have continued for seven years to attend ATSDR’s meetings to demand answers to the causes of Upper Cape Cod’s cancer elevations.

The people of Cape Cod are on the verge of a major accomplishment. A clear majority has said it wants to take back 15,000 acres of land occupied by a military base which for 88 years has served a remote power whose interests were indifferent to the welfare of local residents. They are doing this in order to gain something vital to their survival which that military base has nearly destroyed — clean drinking water. And it is now very likely that they will succeed. Hopefully this will be an example for action by people in other parts of America and the world whose land has been similarly occupied and destroyed by the Pentagon.