Back in the mid-1990s my military assignment was graduate school. I was to earn a Ph.D. and then return to the AF Academy to teach. For my doctoral dissertation I chose to study the role of the military and the environment. The U.S. military is a major source of environmental challenges, but I’m pleased that those same military services are also on the cutting edge of research on the environment. I was reminded of my work on environmental security when I read two articles, one in Colorado Politics by ace reporter Ernest Luning and another in the Colorado Springs Gazette reporting on the Trump administration’s decision to “reclassify” some high-level nuclear waste as low level waste.
In the first story, Luning reports on U.S. Rep Jason Crow’s efforts to make the nation’s largest energy consumer, the DoD, be even more careful and responsible when it comes to environmental matters. I commend my old friend for his vision on this issue. And I’d have been happy to report this “good news” story to you if I hadn’t run across a story in the print edition of the Gazette which talks about the U.S. Department of Energy announcing that some very nasty and highly radioactive stuff is not really dangerous after all. Why would they do this, you may ask? Well, it seems the DOE wants to ship some of it to a low-level radioactive storage site in Utah. Oh, and they also want to stop worrying about 100 million gallons of radioactive waste currently stored in three states. They don’t propose mitigating the waste, but rather by reclassifying the waste to a lower level of danger, they can just ignore the waste in the future. Presto-chango: bad nuke waste vanishes, as least from public view.
I can’t help but wonder if the administration will try this simplistic “solution” to other problems: a person is dying from cancer? Just rename the cancer “the flu” and ignore it. Assault rifles being sold to children? Just reclassify the guns as “playground equipment” and the problem is solved. Neat and clean, eh? The problem here is that the nuclear waste won’t know it has been downgraded, and will likely continue to, well, be nasty and dangerous.
Our lovely state is home to a number of EPA-designated “superfund sites.” Many of these sites are associated with our mining heritage, while others have military and/or energy footprints. There are roughly two dozen such sites in Colorado, representing the dirtiest of the dirty. And one cannot help but wonder what will happen here if this notion of just reclassifying things as not dangerous reaches our borders.
This effort to "rewrite environmental history is sadly not too surprising from the Trump folks. The president’s pattern of lying seems to fit with this new DOE action, and ironically these actions create something that Trump has warned us against all along — fake news. The only problem is that the fake news here is being made by the administration, and the victims will be the people of states like Colorado with significant superfund sites.
You may recall our president’s easing of coal ash dumping rules, making it easier for that coal plant residue to escape into the fresh water supplies of several states. But don’t worry, we’ll just call it “scheduled bonus product release” and tell anyone who objects that they hate America. And no doubt the DOE folks will also point out that they are saving the taxpayers over $40 billion. But the way they are saving money is by reclassifying and then ignoring dangerous stuff. I bet we could save lots of money here in Colorado by reclassifying car theft as “non-standard vehicle transfer” and then the cops wouldn’t have to go after the bad guys. This solution works for everyone, except of course, the person whose care is stolen.
We are fortunate to live in Colorado. And as a result of our natural beauty, we must be on guard to threats to that beauty and, frankly, our way of life. If I take a label off a bottle of Pepsi and stick it on a gallon of radioactive waste, the waste is not instantly converted to something that is safe to drink. And declaring contaminated water to be “alternate facts water” doesn’t mean we want our children to drink it. The president is hoping no one notices these changes as he repeats the lie that he is a good steward of the environment. Rep. Crow is on the right track, but we must all be vigilant; you never know when “highly-enriched Wheaties — extra plutonium for your complete breakfast” might come along.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.