The Pentagon’s use of private contractors adds to a legacy of environmental damage

The military is one of the country’s largest polluters, with an inventory of toxic sites on American soil that once topped 39,000. At many locations, the Pentagon has relied on contractors like U.S. Technology to assist in cleaning and restoring land, removing waste, clearing unexploded bombs, and decontaminating buildings, streams and soil. In addition to its work for Barksdale, U.S. Technology had won some 830 contracts with other military facilities — Army, Air Force, Navy and logistics bases — totaling more than $49 million, many of them to dispose of similar powders.

THE VOLUME AND COMPLEXITY of environmental cleanup work has led the Pentagon to rely more and more on contractors like U.S. Technology. According to the GAO, such companies now handle nearly all of the hazardous waste the Defense Department generates annually, and, according to Pentagon data obtained by ProPublica, at least 2,400 contaminated cleanup sites across the country have been outsourced to private firms.

Cleaning up contamination at these sites has already consumed more than $42 billion in taxpayer funds, much of it paid to contractors. By the Pentagon’s conservative estimates, the total cleanup bill is likely to top $70 billion, making Defense pollution one of the most expensive environmental calamities in American history, and a lucrative mainstay for private concerns.

Virtually all Pentagon contracting — for weapons, aircraft, base security, reconstruction in war zones, and more — has come under criticism for cost overruns and, at times, for being open to exploitation. It’s impossible to say how environmental cleanup contractors compare to others in these regards. But experts say environmental work is especially hard to monitor; waste disposal and contamination are easy to hide and hard to track. Also, with Pentagon officials under pressure to reduce the list of contaminated sites and cut the costs of attending to them, there’s less incentive to question contractors that say problems are fixed or jobs are done well.