“Bombs in Our Backyard,” a multimedia project by ProPublica, exposed a stealth menace stalking the American homeland: The U.S. military, the country’s great protector, is also its most dangerous polluter.
The project’s disclosures were breathtaking: 40,000 toxic sites across the nation; millions of contaminated acres; billions of dollars spent on inadequate cleanups; open burning of old munitions, a practice banned by other major powers; crooked contractors dumping hazardous waste in residential neighborhoods.
The sweeping stories, told in both classic and experimental ways, were each a compelling mix of complex science, military history, eyewitness accounts, whistleblower revelations and follow-the-money puzzle-solving.
The project, though, was more than a set of urgent exposes. Senior reporter Abrahm Lustgarten acquired an utter rarity: data from the Department of Defense identifying the location and status of all of its tens of thousands of polluted sites. Lena Groeger, Ryann Grochowski Jones and Sisi Wei then performed a daunting public service with all that material: building an interactive news app that allowed the general public to locate the environmental threats lurking in their very own neighborhoods. Not even the EPA, the federal outfit charged with regulating the Pentagon’s toxic cleanups, had ever pulled together the comprehensive data.
The app, launched in November, has already drawn several hundred thousand views. And reporters around the country have used it to produce stories on their local waste sites.
Lustgarten, a 2016 Pulitzer finalist for his reporting on the water crisis in the American West and a Polk Award winner for his trailblazing reporting on hydraulic fracturing, always seeks to connect his damning investigations with the people affected. And so, over the course of the series, he gave voice to the patriotic residents of Radford, Virginia, forced to live amid the smoke from the nearby arsenal they depend on for jobs; the people near Camp Minden in Louisiana, told not to worry after an enormous explosion of neglected munitions showered them in toxic clouds; the 500,000 people around Cape Cod who depend on water from an aquifer polluted by live fire training.
Alberto Mora, a former general counsel for the Navy, was candid about what was at work with the military’s decades of pollution.
“As long as we fight wars and we send men and women into combat, we have an obligation to them and to the country to train them realistically. And one of the costs of that training is to create some environmental damage,” said Mora. “I always felt this was a tradeoff that the country needed to make and would want to make.”
Few Americans, though, have any idea such a bargain was ever struck.
The Pentagon stands by its reassurances: trust us, it says; we are cleaning up our messes; your health is not in jeopardy. “Bombs in Our Backyard” is a sobering rebuke to such assurances. The public accepts the Pentagon’s promises at its peril.