Memphis Military Legacy

A Toxic Trail Leads to the Now-Closed Defense Depot

The United States military produces nearly a ton of hazardous wastes every minute, an amount that surpasses even the biggest multinational corporations. More than 120 military sites have been placed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Superfund National Priority List.

Locating toxin-laden military installations near many of America’s poor, minority neighborhoods has forced disadvantaged communities to bear a heavy burden. According to Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, "The military would never have buried leaking mustard bombs in Beverly Hills." But that is exactly what was buried at the 640-acre Defense Depot of Memphis, Tennessee (DDMT). The fenced and guarded depot, once the U.S. military’s largest supply storehouse, operated from 1942 to 1997.

Trey Harrison

The site was slated to revert to the City of Memphis for use as a light industrial and warehouse complex when it closed, but the transfer was delayed. Instead, the depot was placed on the Superfund National Priority List in 1992 because of a wide array of contaminants, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, trichloro-ethylene, carbon tetrachloride, pesticides, dioxin, chlorodane, PCBs and chemical weapons residues.

The population within a mile of the site is economically disadvantaged and nearly 97 percent African-American. Twelve schools are located within a mile radius of the installation boundary. According to local activist Kenneth Bradshaw, "For 55 years, the depot had numerous chemical releases, accidents, explosions and improper disposals of chemicals. The totally white regime in the depot was making life-and-death decisions in secrecy about the health and future of the totally black community outside."

But according to Jackie Noble, command affairs officer with the U.S. Department of Defense Logistics Agency (DLA)—the branch of the military now in charge of the site—“We have been very sensitive to the community the entire time we have been working on the depot. Citizen health has been number one through the entire process."

Bradshaw’s wife, Doris Bradshaw, disagrees. She believes that her grandmother and several other area residents have died from cancers directly caused by exposure to the depot’s toxins. She claims that scores of dogs died in the 1970s when DDT was allegedly dumped into depot ditches. Kenneth Bradshaw believes the site’s toxic legacy has destroyed lives and affected the unborn through genes and hormones.

Environmental assessments have been done in the area, including groundwater sampling, and the remediation process is underway. The chemical weapons material is being removed, and several of the areas, such as the old paint shop and maintenance building, are being cleaned up. A few underground storage tanks have also been removed. The DLA has been working with the civil Memphis Depot Redevelopment Agency, the EPA, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s Division of Superfund (TDEC-DSF) and the citizen-led Restoration Advisory Board, which includes Doris Bradshaw as a member. Independent contractors, like Sverdrup Environmental and the African-American-owned STEP Environmental, have provided much of the labor. In an attempt to inform the public, the DLA publishes an update on the depot every other month and posts detailed information on its website.

According to Kenneth Bradshaw, however, "They are trying to tell us that everything is going on good, as far as the clean up, but they are totally ignoring the adverse health effects of the chemical contaminants." In 1995, the Bradshaws, who are African-American, founded the community activist group Defense Depot of Memphis, Tennessee, Concerned Citizens Committee (DDMT-CCC). This grassroots organization argues that not enough is being done to correct the toxic wrongs caused by the depot. The group claims that environmental racism has been levied continuously against their black community because the authorities assume they are uneducated and powerless. "Of course we want national security," says Bradshaw, "but we don’t want to be poisoned in the process."

DDMT-CCC has around 500 members working to educate anyone who will listen about the problems in south Memphis. The group has been unsuccessful at attempted lawsuits, and it has been unable to afford independent tests of the region. They have, however, received an $11,000 grant from a private foundation. The Bradshaws have been traveling around the U.S., attending seminars and spreading their pleas for environmental equity.
Clearly, there has been some communication breakdown between the different branches of government and the surrounding community. Jordan English, TDEC-DSF environmental field office manager, says, "There have been times when the Tennessee government has had trouble talking to the military."

Kenneth Bradshaw is bitter, denouncing government studies as a "pack of lies" that "aren’t worth the paper they are printed on." But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) did conduct a full Public Health Assessment on the depot as required by Superfund law. The report "determined that no known exposures to DDMT contaminants exist off-site or have existed since 1989 that could result in health effects. ATSDR was unable to determine whether exposures to contaminants from DDMT prior to 1989 could have resulted in health effects because of a lack of environmental data."

According to Jordan English, "When you have something that could have caused a release that long ago, it is very difficult at this time to determine what happened." The ATSDR researchers ruled out food chain, soil and airborne and drainage ditch pathways as potential health threats to the surrounding community. The only poisoned groundwater found to be moving away from the site was, according to the report, "restricted to the northwest corner of Dunn Field. No one drinks this contaminated groundwater."

To address the claims of the DDMT-CCC and other concerned citizens, ATSDR conducted an additional Health Consultation in the community. The researchers were "unable to locate data" covering the Bradshaws" specific stories, but they did examine all the records maintained by the Tennessee Cancer Registry. ATSDR concluded that, overall, cancer incidence occurred at near or slightly below expected rates between 1990 and 1996 in the six census tracts surrounding the depot.

However, Steve Lester, science director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, says, "ATSDR went into the community under the guise of doing the health assessments, but it didn’t answer the citizens" questions. The group’s census tract sampling included lots of people who didn’t have anything to do with the exposure. The results were compromised with a poor design to save money, but no one was informed about these limitations."

Extensive cleanup still needs to be done on the depot grounds, and the military will have to make further repairs to damaged community relations. The Bradshaws say they will keep fighting until "the U.S. military admits that it did a great harm to the people it was supposed to be protecting."