Environmental racism in Tennessee, fueled by the presence of military bases

January 17, 2023 6:00 am
The new sign at the Main Gate at Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn., is installed Oct. 22, 2020. Located alongside Wattendorf Highway before entering the base, the new sign was necessary after an accident occurred in February 2020, in which a car ran off the roadway and collided with the previous sign. The project was completed by the Simplified Acquisition Base Engineering Requirements (SABER) contractor, SDVE, LLC. (U.S. Air Force photo by Deidre Moon)

Workers install a new sign at the Main Gate at Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn., on Oct. 22, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Deidre Moon)

As a nationwide phenomenon, environmental racism occurs when low-income people of color are disproportionately exposed to pollution due to the neighborhoods they are forced to live in.

There are many factors that have been contributing to environmental injustice over the decades, such as the inaccessibility of affordable land, racial segregation, and lack of political power to fight corporations. Due to having to inhabit areas close to pollution hotspots such as industrial facilities, landfills, truck routes, and incinerators, Black residents breathe in 56% more toxic air than they generate. In contrast, the white population is exposed to 17% less pollution than it releases.

For years, Memphis was known as the asthma capital of the country. This is because up to 36,000 housing structures in the city have structural issues that contribute to pests, leaking water, and mold, all of which are risk factors for asthma. As a consequence of historical and pervasive systematic racism within the housing market, Black people have been kept out of safer and wealthier neighborhoods. For this reason, a significant number of these unsafe housing conditions fall on the shoulders of communities of color. Dickson County is no stranger to environmental racism either. Although it covers over 490 square miles, the only waste facilities are situated right next to a predominantly Black community.

Still, a more insidious contributor to environmental racism in Tennessee is the presence of military bases. These installations are major pollution sources, and those living close to military bases are often people of color with limited financial resources. All military facilities in the state are contaminated with perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS or “forever chemicals”, a group of over 9,000 toxic agents. The source of these substances pertains to firefighters using the fire suppressant AFFF, which contains between 50% and 98% PFAS, to put out jet fuel and petroleum fires.

Two of the most polluted military sites in Tennessee, causing toxic exposure among the nearby communities

“Forever chemicals” are chemicals known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAs, a class that includes thousands of individual chemicals. PFAs are resistant to breakdown, staying present in the environment of for years and raising the risk of contamination.

Established in 1950, Arnold Air Force Base is located adjacent to the city of Tullahoma. Since 1967, military firefighters have been using AFFF on the site — firefighting foam — which led to drinking water contamination. Out of the numerous “forever chemicals”, PFOS and PFOA currently have the strongest link to cancer. At this military installation, the highest level of these substances measured in the water was 175,000 ppt, exceeding the safe exposure limit by 2,500 times. In addition to PFAS, other hazardous chemicals might have been used on Arnold Air Force Base. This could be one of the reasons why Tullahoma’s tap water now contains 17 contaminants of concern, out of which seven are over the safe exposure limit. Some of these substances are chloroform, trihalomethanes, and bromodichloromethane.

Located near the city with the same name and built in 1930, Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport is another source of “forever chemicals” contamination for Tennessee residents. It is also known as Lovell Field. During World War II, a part of the airport was a military training facility. The greatest PFOS and PFOA level detected in the drinking water at the airport was 34,800 ppt, eclipsing the safe exposure limit by almost 500 times. Tennessee American Water, which serves over 188,000 residents, is currently tainted, which is partly due to the past military activity at Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport. Out of the 18 toxic contaminants detected, nine are over the safe exposure limit, including radium, chloroform, and trihalomethanes. Another noteworthy military base with PFAS contamination in Tennessee is Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington, near Memphis.

Unfortunately, public law has been letting down people of color who experience environmental racism for decades. By allowing corporations that release pollution in preponderantly Black neighborhoods to receive lower fines, for instance, public law has been encouraging this awful phenomenon. Even when authorities do take the initiative to combat environmental injustice, enforcing a new law generally takes years. However, in most cases, policymakers turn a blind eye to the health burden communities of color have to carry. 


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Jonathan Sharp
Jonathan Sharp

Jonathan Sharp is Chief Financial Officer at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. The law firm, headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, specializes in toxic exposure, providing assistance to communities affected by environmental racism. Among Sharp's responsibilities are case evaluation, financial analysis, and management of firm assets.