Large or small, permanent or temporary, military installations have a track record of generating pollution that has impacted the health of workers and nearby communities. While standards have been slowly improving in the wake of a series of politically damaging incidents, environmental oversight and governance is all too often seen as a burden that interferes with mission success and standards may fall far below those applied domestically. Power imbalances and a lack of technical capacity can mean that host nations are unable to hold polluters accountable for damage caused.
Case study: Subic Bay Naval Facility and Clark Air Force Base, Philippines
The US military had a permanent presence in the Philippines for nearly 90 years, focused on the Subic Bay Naval Facility and later the Clark Air Base. Clark was evacuated in 1991 due to the eruption of nearby Mount Pinatubo. Parliamentary opposition to the arrangement ultimately led to the end of the US leases on military sites.
Following Pinatubo, civilians were evacuated and re-housed at Clark. Soon after, reports began to emerge of health problems including miscarriages, birth defects and nervous system damage – these were linked to environmental contamination on the base, where fuels and chemicals had escaped from storage tanks, contaminating water supplies.
At Subic, investigations found that fuels, heavy metals, Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other chemicals had been discharged directly into the bay, breaching US domestic guidelines for hazardous waste. Unexploded ordnance was also present at each site.
The US government denied all responsibility for the contamination and subsequent health impact, arguing that the original basing agreement had not defined environmental standards. Independent efforts to remediate the sites continue to the present day, as do domestic campaigns calling for the US government to take responsibility.
- Military installations can be significant sources of pollution but oversight and transparency are often inadequate.
- Insufficient attention is paid to the environmental impact of operations in basing agreements and standards may be far lower than those that would be expected domestically.
- Bilateral agreements often allow polluters to escape liabilities, placing communities at risk from contamination.