How the military lost track of hazardous waste (and put us all at risk)
Fraud. Bribery. Incompetence. The military’s use of contractors adds to a legacy of environmental damage.
By Abrahm Lustgarten
IN AUGUST 2016, an inspector from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arrived at Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana, a nerve center for the U.S. military’s global air combat operations, to conduct a routine look at the base’s handling of its hazardous waste.
Barksdale, like many military bases, generates large volumes of hazardous materials, including thousands of pounds of toxic powder left over from cleaning, painting and maintaining airplanes.
For years, Barksdale had been sending a portion of its waste to an Ohio company, U.S. Technology Corp., that had sold officials at the base on a seemingly ingenious solution for disposing of it: The company would take the contaminated powder from refurbished war planes and repurpose it into cinderblocks that would be used to build everything from schools to hotels to big-box department stores — even a pregnancy support center in Ohio. The deal would ostensibly shield the Air Force from the liabililty of being a large producer of dangerous hazardous trash.
The arrangement was not unique.
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.
In taking on environmental cleanup jobs, contractors often bring needed expertise to technical tasks the Pentagon isn’t equipped to do itself. They also absorb much of the legal responsibility for disposing of military-made hazards, in some cases helping the Pentagon — at least on paper — winnow down its list of toxic liabilities.
But in outsourcing this work, the military has often struggled to provide adequate oversight to ensure that work is done competently — or is completed at all. Today, records show, some of the most dangerous cleanup work that has been entrusted to contractors remains unfinished, or worse, has been falsely pronounced complete, leaving people who live near former military sites to assume these areas are now safe.
What the EPA inspector found when he visited Barksdale was an object lesson in the system’s blind spots.
Barrels of the waste hadn’t been shipped off and recycled, but rather were stored in a garage tucked away from the facility’s main operations. Further, shipping documents suggested that what waste had been sent off the base hadn’t gone to U.S. Technology’s recycling plant in Ohio, as an Air Force official first told the EPA, but instead had gone to company warehouses in at least two other states. Storing hazardous waste without a permit — and without immediately recycling it — can be illegal.
The inspection findings triggered an investigation to determine if the Air Force had been storing hazardous waste that it was supposed to have been recycling without a permit. It also suggested broader problems with U.S. Technology, which was already the subject of an inquiry in Georgia into whether it was illegally dumping waste — including material that could have come from Barksdale — near a residential neighborhood there.
Barksdale officials told ProPublica that the base “has never stored” hazardous materials at the request of U.S. Technology. The Air Force and the Pentagon declined to answer any specific questions about U.S. Technology’s work, except to say that the base had been working with the company for at least a decade.
ProPublica pieced together what happened at Barksdale using EPA records, including a 1,000-page document compiled by one of its lead investigators, as well as Air Force correspondence, court files, Pentagon contracts and other materials.
The documents make clear that officials at Barksdale should have been wary of doing business with U.S. Technology from the start. The head of one of its sub-contractors had been sent to prison in 2008 for illegally dumping hazardous waste under another Pentagon contract. U.S. Technology had been investigated for related wrongdoing — storing or dumping material it claimed to be recycling — in two other states. Indeed, a 2011 Pentagon report to Congress about contractor fraud included U.S. Technology on a list of companies that had criminal or civil judgments against them, but which still received millions of dollars in subsequent contracts.
Neither the Air Force nor the Pentagon would respond to questions about why the various military branches continued to award contracts to U.S. Technology despite its problems.
The EPA also would not say whether it was looking into U.S. Technology’s contracts with other bases — deals involving millions of pounds of toxic powder and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars — but such a step might well be prudent.
In April, U.S. Technology’s founder and president, Raymond Williams, was indicted in U.S. District Court in Missouri for trucking millions of pounds of its hazardous powder waste — from Defense and other types of contracts — over state lines, where, according to EPA documents, the company had been storing it instead of recycling it. In June, Williams was indicted in Georgia on federal charges related to bribing an Air Force official for recycling contracts. Williams has pleaded not guilty in both cases.
Asked about Barksdale and other contracts that have gone awry, one of the Pentagon’s top environmental officials told ProPublica that there is no systemic problem with the military’s approach to cleanup or other environmental contracting. Maureen Sullivan, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment, safety and occupational health, said the military might have thousands of companies under contract at any given time and that the Barksdale case and others like it amount to rare examples of negligence or incompetence.
“Not everybody is an angel,” Sullivan said.
Still, the Pentagon and its various monitors have issued repeated warnings about problems related to environmental cleanup contractors.
In 2001, the Defense Department’s own inspector general discussed the “significant risk of fraud” in environmental cleanup contracts as one of the Pentagon’s “high risk vulnerabilities.” That report did not list recommendations for reform, chiefly because many of the office’s previous efforts imploring changes had been ignored.
A decade later, the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that many Pentagon environmental cleanup contracts were vulnerable to corner-cutting, lack of quality review and plain incompetence. The report made clear that the department relied heavily on performance-based contracts despite federal guidelines which cautioned against using them for environmental jobs, perhaps because doing so furthered the Pentagon’s self-interest in ridding itself of environmental headaches.
“The evidence is in, a contractor is only as good as the oversight that they have,” said Jane Williams, the executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, a watchdog group that has been tracking defense site cleanups across the country since 1989. “The defense department turns a blind eye… They want to write a check and have someone else do it.”
AIRMEN CALL BARKSDALE AIR FORCE base “The Deuce” — home to the 2nd Bombing Wing of the 8th Air Force, a legendary unit in American aerial bombardment with roots going back to World War I. The Wing was moved to Barksdale in 1963, with the production of the B-52. In 1991, seven B-52s flew the longest round-trip combat mission in aviation history from Barksdale’s hangers, firing the first cruise missiles of the first Gulf War into Baghdad from their holds beneath the bombers’ gaping wings.
Today, nearly half of the Air Force’s remaining B-52’s fly from this heavily guarded, 22,000-acre base, which has 8,500 airmen stationed there. Those 185,000-pound hunks of aging, flexing metal — still the workhorse of the nation’s strike force more than 55 years after the last one was made — need an extraordinary amount of work to keep them in the air. At Barksdale, the airplanes’ parts are sanded and painted, corrosion removed, cracks in the fuselage cut out and patched, rivets drilled hollow and replaced. All so the planes can return to flight training over Eastern Europe or bombing raids against ISIS in Syria.
Essential to this unglamorous, but vital work are millions of tiny glass and plastic beads that machinists use to blast against metal parts to strip away paint and corrosion. The process leaves huge amounts of toxic dust, including the flaked paint and bits of pulverized metal from the planes themselves.
U.S. Technology was founded in 1987 by Williams, described by colleagues as an eccentric entrepreneur with a love for historic fighter planes and airplane design. U.S. Technology and its dozen or so affiliated corporations have tried to sell everything from inexpensive prop fighter planes to the United Arab Emirates to concrete blocks. But the core business has always been the bead blasting and recycling.
For years Barksdale handled the waste produced by its airplane maintenance just as it handled any other hazardous material: It catalogued and labeled it, registered the quantities with the EPA and state authorities, and shipped it to a specialized disposal facility in Kentucky that was licensed to burn or bury the stuff.
But in the last decade, the Pentagon began to press Barksdale and other bases to comply with “waste minimization” rules set out in federal regulations. Barksdale officials said they were required to cut the volume of waste the base produced by 10 percent from 2010 levels by 2020, for example. Increasingly, all bases — which compete for funding and whose officers vie for promotions — are judged on meeting or beating quotas for limiting and then promptly handling waste.
Documents make clear U.S. Technology’s pitch spoke directly to Barksdale and was calibrated to help achieve these aims. The company promised to supply all of the base’s blast powder and then retrieve the spent material — thousands of pounds of it a year — to use as fill to make cinderblocks. The EPA and Ohio environment officials had certified this was relatively safe, so long as the cinderblocks didn’t come into contact with the ground, where they could potentially contaminate food and water supplies.
The deal also promised other benefits.
Because U.S. Technology was a recycler, the toxic material it removed from Barksdale would no longer be classified legally as “hazardous waste.” This semantic end run spared the Air Force from having to meet strict federal regulations for where such waste goes and for protecting people from being harmed by it. As one company sales document put it, recyclable materials “are exempt from regulation as a waste.” It also meant that, at least technically, Barksdale’s ledger would show that it was producing less waste overall, and thus edging closer to the Pentagon’s goals.
U.S. Technology’s sales documents boasted that its approach offered its military customers “maximum protection” from liability and costs related to cleanups, and could maybe even prevent contaminated areas from becoming Superfund sites.
Still, the presentations left out important bits of the company’s history.
In order to be exempt from hazardous waste laws, federal regulations require waste recycling companies like U.S. Technology to re-purpose at least three-quarters of the hazardous material they collect as part of contracts in any given year. The rule is meant to ensure that waste isn’t simply being stored. Storing hazardous waste requires a highly specialized license and, done wrong, can lead to environmental disaster.
In 2002, however, Ohio and EPA investigators inspected U.S. Technology’s plant and found discrepancies in its inventories of hazardous materials received from the military and other customers. Of some 3.6 million pounds of material U.S. Technology had accepted in 2000, for example, only 98,000 pounds of it had been used for recycled products, a figure “well short of the required amount,” according to Ohio state records. In an alleyway next to the building, investigators found stacks of unused outdoor patio furniture apparently molded from hazardous powder but never sold.
“There obviously wasn’t a market for the furniture,” wrote Nyall McKenna, the Ohio environment regulator who led the investigation.
The investigators found that U.S. Technology had directly recycled a small portion of the material, but shipped the vast majority of it to a processing company in Mississippi that U.S. Technology had hired to reformulate the material into large blocks that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — a Pentagon branch itself — could use in its management of the country’s river systems. But it turned out the processing company, Hydromex, hadn’t been recycling the material either. Instead, it had been burying U.S. Technology’s waste in trenches it dug underground, and then had used the remaining powder to make a concrete slab that covered the holes. By the time the EPA and state regulators learned this, more than 11 million pounds of waste from Ohio, and U.S. Technology customers around the country — packed into 25,000 drums — had been stashed at the site in Yazoo, Mississippi.
Hydromex’s owner was sent to prison for more than three years. U.S. Technology and its officials avoided prosecution, saying the company was not aware of Hydromex’s dumping and was itself a victim of fraud. (In a later civil trial, a jury rejected U.S. Technology’s fraud claims against the property owner of the Hydromex plant.) In the eyes of regulators, though, U.S. Technology remained liable for the waste material under environmental law, and would ultimately be tasked with removing and — again — properly recycling the dumped waste.
EPA documents and emails obtained by the agency show some of the material dumped in Mississippi came from U.S. military bases and that the case had gotten the attention of the Air Force in particular. At least two other bases — Robins Air Force Base in Georgia and Hill Air Force base in Utah — had been working with U.S. Technology, and others were about to start until they were informally warned off by headquarters, pending a review, according to Air Force documents.
In the end, though, any Air Force wariness concerning U.S. Technology proved short-lived. Senior brass, as part of their look at what had gone wrong in 2002, visited the company’s operations in 2005 and came away with a favorable view.
“U.S. Technology has a very impressive recycling operation,” William Hoogsteden, a project manager at the Air Force research laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, wrote in a 2005 memo. The company, the official concluded, “looks to be one of the few legitimate and viable recycling processes using spent plastic media.”
Another 2005 letter pushed U.S. Technology’s appeal explicitly. “Their products help us achieve diversion targets (recycle vs. disposal),” wrote David Fort, an Air Force hazardous waste program manager, in an internal Air Force exchange. “This is something that we simply ought to take advantage of.”
In 2006, various Pentagon branches signed 30 contracts with U.S. Technology worth more than $2.7 million.
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.
A lengthy trail of damning reports from military watchdogs, however, suggests the same problems have cropped up time and again when the Pentagon has delegated environmental cleanups to contractors.
In 2015, calling environmental issues a “longstanding material weakness,” the Pentagon’s inspector general said that despite publishing some 20 previous reports on the issue, little progress had been made in adopting recommendations.
One of those previous reports was the 2001 report to Congress, which noted that environmental crimes committed by hazardous waste contractors warranted the majority of attention from the agency’s criminal investigations division. Contractors cut corners, falsely certified as done environmental work they hadn’t completed, illegally dumped dangerous materials, or employed workers who weren’t properly trained for their tasks, the report said, describing such incidents as “typical” and “discussed regularly.”
The inspector general noted that across all branches of the Pentagon, environmental contracts were ripe for abuse because remediation relies so heavily on contractors to self-report their progress. And it also noted that the results of the review were “disappointing because the department made limited progress in carrying out numerous agreed-upon recommendations” from the past.
John Arlington, who researched corruption at defense sites as a former chief investigator for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said the problems were epic.
“We discovered a very long history of hazardous disposal practices of the worst sort,” said Arlington, who now serves as general counsel for the SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
In many cases, egregious malpractice — or even intentional deception — hasn’t been enough to steer the Pentagon away from particular contractors. In San Francisco, in 2016, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that employees of a prominent global environmental engineering firm hired by the Navy had falsified soil samples from a radioactive experiment site soon to be converted to housing in the nation’s hottest real estate market. The contractor, Tetra Tech, has received more than $2.3 billion in defense contracts over the past decade, and was being paid more than $300 million for its cleanup in San Francisco.
In a legal petition the San Francisco environment group Greenaction submitted to NRC investigators, several Tetra Tech whistleblowers said that, in order to save money, Tetra Tech managers had ordered them to replace contaminated soil samples with clean soil, dump contaminated soil in trenches on the property, falsify documents certifying the work and manipulate the computer data analyzing radiation levels. Their allegations raised questions about environmental safety across some 420 acres of the site.
Tetra Tech, which conducted an internal investigation and conceded its samples had been swapped, “emphatically denies” that its management was involved or that there was a broader conspiracy at the site, according to a statement the company sent to ProPublica. The NRC, at first, fined Tetra Tech $7,000, but even that amount was later reduced after an agreement that the company would hold additional training for its employees. A Navy spokesperson said that while Tetra Tech is still under contract, it is no longer doing field work at the site.
At Camp Minden, a former Army ammunition plant now owned by Louisiana and used by its National Guard, a munitions waste recycling contractor’s failures caused a disaster too big to ignore.
As part of a nationwide effort to decommission more than a billion pounds of aging weapons, the Army hired a company called Explo Systems to disassemble 1.3 million artillery charges at Minden. For $8.6 million, the firm would remove the shells and casings and empty an explosive propellant powder called M6. Explo claimed to have industrial facilities to recycle the M6, and said it would safely destroy some of it while converting the rest into blasting charges it planned to sell to the mining industry.
Had the Army ever looked into Explo’s capabilities, it would have learned that it had not yet built two of the processing facilities it would need to destroy and convert the Army’s explosive material. Nevertheless, by mid-2012, Explo documents appeared to show that it had shipped and sold nearly 18 million pounds of the explosives.
That illusion quite literally blew up on Oct. 15, 2012, when a massive explosion rocked the Minden grounds, shattering windows in the town four miles away, toppling 11 rail cars, and sending a mushroom cloud 7,000 feet into the sky. EPA records describe a blast radius of raw explosives landing as close as a few thousand feet from the nearby town.
The Georgia dumping — which EPA is investigating separately — suggests a potentially larger problem with U.S. Technology.
The company appeared, once again, to be having difficulty turning its powder waste into viable products. According to John Socotch, the company’s long-time director of sales, the market for U.S. Technology’s powder dried up when the construction industry tanked in 2008 and it never fully recovered.
“Ray had to continually find other means, other companies to recycle the material,” Socotch said of the company’s owner in an interview with ProPublica. He said the company tried selling military waste for brick facades and to glass companies, in order “to get rid of the material.”
In Georgia, the raceway’s owner, a local real estate developer who also owns the building in Macon that served as U.S. Technology’s warehouse, told ProPublica that Williams personally appealed to him to dump the waste. “They were asking me about potential sources to get rid of the stuff, because it just accumulates in the warehouse,” said Tim Thornton. Thornton said Williams promised him the material wasn’t hazardous.
Ray Williams did not return repeated phone calls from ProPublica, and his lawyer declined to comment. According to Socotch, Williams sold the company’s patents, contracts and processes in April 2015 to an Ohio businessman named Anthony Giancola. Giancola’s office did not return repeated calls for comment, but arranged for Socotch to speak with ProPublica.
The sale of the company has not distanced Williams from criminal cases related to its military contracts. In June, he was indicted in a U.S. District Court in Georgia on charges of paying a Department of Defense official $20,000 a year to tailor contracts at Robins Air Force base so that only U.S. Technology’s bead blasting and recycling services could satisfy them. According to the 84 counts in the indictment, between 2004 and 2013 Williams allegedly conspired with the officer, Mark Cundiff, on contracts large and small, including a $25 million supply contract for U.S. bases and NATO members to purchase blasting materials. Cundiff has pleaded guilty in the case.
In a separate case, Missouri officials indicted Williams and U.S. Technology Corp. in April 2017 on charges of conspiracy to illegally dispose of hazardous waste. After the Hydromex case in Mississippi, U.S. Technology acquired Hydromex and Williams promised to properly recycle the material that had been dumped in Yazoo. Instead, in 2013, Missouri officials determined that U.S. Technology had trucked the material — 9 million pounds of it — over the state border and deposited it in a U.S. Technology warehouse in Berger, Mo. Williams has pleaded not guilty in that case.
Today, U.S. Technology Corp. has reconstituted itself under new leadership, and a slightly revised name.
In April 2015, U.S. Technology Corp. fired all of its employees, according to Socotch. The next day the new owner, who had purchased the patented products and the recycling process from Williams, hired everyone back — including Socotch, the long-time sales director. The company is now called U.S. Technology Media, and is located in one of Williams’ old recycling buildings.
“We’re trying to get people to understand we are not that guy,” Socotch said of Williams. “We are not that company.”
The Pentagon, it seems, is already persuaded.
Between April 2015 and June 2017, the Pentagon awarded 62 contracts to the new company, worth more than $1.9 million. Barksdale officials continued to deal with the new company — and shipped more of its waste to it — in 2016. In late July, after EPA officials sent federal agencies a letter warning them that U.S. Technology was under investigation, and the Pentagon banned U.S. Technology Corp. — the old company — from any new government contracts, adding them to a list of forbidden companies. Contracts with the new company are still allowed.
Back at Barksdale, records show that the Air Force has promised the EPA it will now handle its waste on its own, registering its barrels of contaminated powder in federal and state hazardous waste databases and likely shipping them to the licensed disposal facility in Kentucky. It says it will no longer work with U.S. Technology Media.
That, of course, leaves the question of what ever happened to decades worth of hazardous materials Williams and U.S. Technology removed from American military installations. Socotch says much of it was properly recycled, but he declined to say how much or to document the effort.
It appears that neither the company nor the Air Force plans to take responsibility for the unprocessed waste. Whatever hazardous waste U.S. Technology had accumulated in its warehouses, Socotch said, is still owned by U.S. Technology Corp., Williams’ apparently now-defunct company.
“I can only speak for the new company, because the new company started fresh,” Socotch said. “I don’t know what the old company continues to do to get rid of recycled material.”
Help us Investigate: If you have experience with or information about the military’s use of contractors and environmental cleanups, email Abrahm.Lustgarten@propublica.org. For additional coverage, see more from ProPublica’s Bombs in Our Backyard series.