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Study: Old military sites pose risk to tribes
Monday, November 29, 2004

A disproportionate number of dangerous military sites are located on or near tribal lands, according to a recently-published study.

In the August 2004 issue of American Sociological Review, two sociologists reported their review of closed military sites in more than 3,100 counties in the lower 48 states. They found that a significant number of sites rated "extremely" dangerous by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were located near reservations.

"The more acres owned by Native Americans, the greater the number of such sites," wrote Gregory Hooks, a professor at Washington State University, and Chad L. Smith, a former WSU graduate student who is now a professor at Texas State University-San Marcos.

The researchers traced the threat to the expansion of the U.S. military following the Indian wars of the late 1800s and continuing through the Cold War in the 1950s. Tribes were pushed off millions and millions of acres of their homelands to make way for bombing ranges, weapons testing sites, storage facilities and other military installations, Hooks and Smith note.

The result is that Indian Country remains at risk from unexploded ordinance, including landmines, nerve gases, and toxic and explosive shells. Hooks, the chair of WSU's Department of Sociology, said "The Treadmill of Destruction: National Sacrifice Areas and Native Americans" is the first to document these environmental hazards and their relation to federal Indian policy.

"The study demonstrates that much of the disproportional exposure of Native Americans to environmental dangers throughout the 20th century was the result of militarism, rather than economic competition," said Hooks. "And it shows that historically coercive governmental policies in locating Indian reservations are a major factor in determining their exposure."

The study looked at several periods in U.S.-Indian relations to examine the impact of the military's expansion on Native Americans. It found that the greatest danger developed not during the removal and assimilation era of the 1800s and early 1900s but during the era that started with the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, moved to the termination acts of the 1950s and ended with the 1975 self-determination act.

According to the data, 240 extremely dangerous sites were created during the IRA period. In the years following termination and self-determination, 310 extremely dangerous sites were developed, the study reported.

The Native American Lands Environmental Mitigation Program at the Department of Defense and other federal programs seek to address some of these impacts. Government officials work with tribes across the nation to cleanup, restore and mitigate the military's environmental impacts on Indian lands.

The effort has not always been successful. In October, the Umatilla Nation of Oregon sued the government over nuclear waste left at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a site in Washington that was created in World War II to produce plutonium for the first nuclear weapons. The Yakama Nation of Washington and the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho are in mediation over the same issue.

Still, tribal leaders have given the Pentagon a generally favorable rating for working with Indian Country. With the exception of the Army Corps, an agency faulted for its handling of sacred sites and burial grounds, they say military officials are more open than the Interior Department and other agencies.

Since 1996, the mitigation program has contacted over 100 tribes affected by nearly 550 military sites in the lower 48 states and in Alaska. As a result, the government has cleaned up some sites and returned some land to tribes.

But the study authors say more research needs to be done to understand the effects of current military sites because that information remains classified.

"Given that the United States currently possesses a disproportionate share of the world’s weapons of mass destruction and these weapons are stored at active military bases, a full understanding of the environmental dangers posed by military activities requires a careful examination of the materials and their handling," Hooks and Smith wrote.

Here are some examples of military sites affecting tribes and their Risk Assessment Code (RAC). An RAC score of 1 indicates immediate danger; scores of 2 and 3 indicate a sense of urgency; a score of 4 indicates some work needs to occur; and a score of 5 indicates no work needed. Data is taken from the Department of Defense's Native American Environmental Tracking System.
Williams Field Bomb Target Range Ak Chin Indian Community, Arizona 3
Isleta Pueblo Ordnance Impact Area  Isleta Pueblo, New Mexico 2
Salton Sea Bomb Target #51 Torres-Martinez Band of Cahuilla Indians, California 3
Williams Field Bomb Target Range #13  Tohono O'odham Nation, Arizona 4

Relevant Links:
American Sociological Review - Department of Defense Native American Environmental Tracking System -
Ordnance and Explosives Directorate -

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