Environmental Report on Australian Bases
for Rockhampton and Townsville Beef Producers
This report focuses on effects of military training and military produced contaminants. It is safe to say that these activities have overwhelmingly negative effects on the ecosystem structure and function. These effects include habitat alteration, environmental pollution and disturbance to populations of flora and fauna which can bring about both long lasting and acute effects in both land and water.
The weapons employed by militaries during land conflicts create probably the greatest hazard to ecosystems. The numerous explosive techniques and tools at the disposal of army forces during ground warfare have left a legacy on landscapes across the globe of large craters, shrapnel, and contamination, devastating many ecosystems across the biosphere (Westing 1980; Hupy 2008; Certini et al. 2013).
This report uses mostly US material but there is a growing amount of Australian information coming to light in recent years. The US situation is severe as its military is far bigger and has been using nuclear and chemical weapons as well as conventional weapons while the Australian military has restricted itself to the conventional.
Military bases which exclude human use do sometimes contribute to a better environment. The ‘no-man’s land’ in the DMZ on the Korean peninsula has become a sort of reserve or park for cranes. The area around Pine Gap where no cattle or people are allowed is better country than the neighbouring farms.
The Australian military is sensitive to environmental issues in a public relations sense. They now commission environmental impact statements (EIS) on all their major works and exercises. The drawback is that these statements tend to be produced by tame commercial organisations which rarely reject the proposals and seldom require clean-ups and remediation. The military’s real view of the environment is probably best summed up by US Admiral Jeremiah who stated that in many cases the environment is used as a screen to mask hidden political agendas. He said these agendas could often be characterized as ‘anti-military’. Environment regulations must recognize the fact that war and its preparation are inherently destructive.
Military Training Bases
A military training base is a general designation applied to military facilities that house military equipment and personnel, and facilitate training exercises and tactical operations. Military training bases can range from small outpost sites to large military ‘cities’. The variation in size and operational use of military training bases leads to a broad spectrum of human produced impacts, both in type and severity, on the local ecosystem. These impacts can be broken down into two broad categories: (i) the development of military training bases, which includes the establishment and construction of the facility and site; and (ii) operations of the military training base, which include the functional operation of the infrastructure itself and the corresponding military activities designated for the specific site.
There are differences between the sites near Shoalwater Bay (Rockhampton) and Townsville proposed for the Singaporean base. The main difference is that the Rockhampton area is wet tropics and has a higher annual rainfall than the Townsville area which is dry savannah. This will mean that water pollution will act more quickly in the Rockhampton area than further north. However hazardous material is just as dangerous wherever the contamination is present.
(i) the development of military training bases, which includes the establishment and construction of the facility and site
What actual construction is planned at each site is not clear at this time but there are several points we can make with some surety. There will be buildings to house the soldiers, workshops, hazardous material storage and so on. There will be infrastructure such as roads, helicopter landing pads and obstacles for training, etc. These items will cause impacts which include habitat degradation, soil erosion, and chemical contamination.
Initial site development requires the clearing of vegetation and trees, followed by intensive soil excavation and compaction. This process alters the natural landscape by the removal of existing vegetation and the prevention of future vegetation growth. The removal of vegetation coupled with soil excavation increases the potential for soil erosion, and reduces water infiltration rates, altering the landscape ecology by changing soil structure and chemistry, and increasing water runoff rates. Chemical contamination of local water sources can also occur from increased water runoff carrying sediments and chemicals associated with waste dumping (e.g., hazardous building materials, paints, solvents, etc.), and accidental chemical spills (e.g., fuel and oil) during the development stage.
For effective combat training in real-world scenarios, military training bases need large areas in a wide variety of environments and climate zones. The USA has training bases in various climate zones. In fact 6% of the world’s surface has been put aside for military training. However, it is hard to understand why the Singapore military would need to train in an arid savannah area when they would be operating in a hot tropical forest area if their purpose is the defense of Singapore. It is likely that the impetus for this sort of training is the pressure the US is exerting on ‘allies’ such as Singapore (and Australia) to do some work in the Middle East. It is legitimate to ask why Australian farmers have to suffer for Singaporean and possibly USA foreign policy objectives.
The proposed Singaporean base will create great tracts of land where flora and fauna can thrive. However, this small environmental silver lining is hardly sufficient to give the farmers who lose their land any solace. Compulsory acquisition of the farms will eliminate economic production and jobs (direct and indirect – mechanics, abbatoir workers, transport workers, etc). Farming activities can continue for generations but a military base is not productive and is likely to create profits for only local pubs and night club owners.
The environmental impacts associated with the upkeep of military infrastructure and equipment have been a growing concern in many countries around the world.
Military infrastructure and equipment is subject to constant use, often under extreme conditions, creating the need for constant maintenance and upkeep. This maintenance leads to the generation of large quantities of hazardous wastes including heavy metals, solvents, corrosives, paints, fuel, and oils.
When these hazardous wastes are improperly stored or disposed of, it can cause serious water contamination and habitat degradation issues, which can directly affect biodiversity. There have even been documented reports of military sites that dump hazardous wastes into open holding ponds, evaporation ponds, mines, and wells.
While the Singaporean base will probably not house ground attack aircraft, we can expect them to have helicopters (their own or on loan from Australia). The maintenance of helicopters requires the use of hazardous materials, oils and fuels, and cleaning solvents.
An additional hazard is the impact of noise on the animals in the local area.
The construction of landing areas and frequent take offs and landings will also be a source of disturbance of soil and plants besides the animals.
Chemical composition of artillery and tank shells
Most shells are high velocity carrying an explosive payload to do maximum damage to the target on arrival. Shells can also carry chemical, incendiary and other payloads. Since an international agreement has banned chemical weapons there is little likelihood that Australian sites will use such chemical weapons. Australian munitions use RDX and TNT. http://www.australian-munitions.com.au/portfolio-item/high-explosives/
- Trinitrotoluene (TNT) is a high explosive used in the manufacture of bombs and other munitions. It is primarily absorbed by humans through the skin or through inhalation or ingestion of its fumes and dust. Some of its effects are liver and kidney damage, anemia, leukocytosis, and peripheral neuropathy.
- RDX is an acronym for “research and development explosive” (hexahydro-1,3,5-trinitro-1,3,5 triazine). The army (US) noted toxic affects among soldiers in Vietnam who were exposed to RDX, either through accidental ingestion or prolonged exposure to RDX fumes. Its long term effects were not well known but US soldiers were documented to have seizures, vomiting, amnesia and even coma from exposure to the chemical. (Ref Seth Shulman “The Threat at Home – confronting the toxic legacy of the US military pp 203-211).
These two chemicals can get into drinking water, be blown in the dust many kilometres from the original blast and set up populations for chemical contamination for many years to come. Neighbouring farmers could be contaminated as could farm animals. If beef cattle were detected with various chemical contamination emanating from military training areas it could cause a severe drop in revenue for the meat industry.
A similar case involving different chemicals can be seen in the farms around Oakey Queensland and Tindall NT where contamination from cleaning chemicals has caused a toxic plume to enter surface and bore water.
- One of the payloads an artillery/tank shell can deliver is depleted uranium (DU). However, the Australian Government does not allow depleted uranium shells to be used in Australia. However, there is no guarantee that some time in the future this restriction will be lifted. It is important not to alarm people about the dangers of DU especially when the important issue is the real contaminates at present affecting Australian populations.
UXO- Unexploded Ordinance
For any number of rounds fired either by tank, artillery piece or other means, a certain percentage do not detonate. These rounds penetrate the soil to some depth or skid off and lie on the surface. The danger of the surface live rounds is that they can detonate for any reason, a cow stepping on them, a boy throwing them, bushfire, etc. The rounds that penetrate the surface can only be removed by armoured bulldozers and sifting equipment which is extremely expensive. No one knows how long such UXOs remain live — there is still ammunition detonating from WW1 on Belgian farms. This is why we say the land will be locked up for many decades and rendered useless for any farming.
The current environmental scandal affecting the military is the toxic plumes that flow from RAAF bases right around the country. Apparently a solvent used to suppress fire was used on all RAAF planes for many years. The solvent was washed down nearby drains and as a result there are toxic plumes moving out from the bases. Williamtown near Newcastle and Oakey near Toowoomba have been in the news and Tindall outside Catherine and in a beef producing area of the NT has experienced the contamination of their bores from this toxic plume. https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/news/health/2016/08/27/exclusive-toxic-chemical-conflict-defence-sites/14722200003667
The Saturday Paper has revealed that three companies that won multimillion-dollar Defence Department contracts helped to set the controversially lower standards.
The consultancy firms joined government health officials at an invitation-only workshop to draft new safe limits for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), both widely used on defence bases for almost 50 years. They are increasingly linked to cancer, liver and thyroid disease, immune suppression and reduced fertility.
The April 5 workshop set “tolerable daily intake” levels for both chemicals at 75 times higher than acceptable limits in the United States. Safe drinking water limits were set at more than 78 times the US level.
This information is not good news for those whose properties adjoin Australian military bases. The Morton National Park near the town of Milton on the South Coast of NSW was a training area for the Australian military who dumped many toxic substances in a certain area of the park. This area is fenced off but vulnerable to bushfires and a few years ago was threatened during a particularly intense bushfire season. No one knows what will happen if fire does get into this area and what damage and contamination may spread from such an event. As bushwalkers enter the park they are confronted by this sign:
Australian and American experience of training bases is that the land is too contaminated to be used again for farming. Any clean-up is far too expensive and difficult so the military’s best plan is to put a fence around the land and let it stagnate for decades.
The map below is a fair summary of what the military have at their disposal at present. It is impossible to argue that the Australian and Singaporean militaries do not already have enough land area for practice and training. The current Federal Government plans are reckless and cannot be justified by the billions of dollars being paid by the Singaporean Government for a military training base.
Australia will benefit if our government gives priority to food security over military security.
Prepared by Denis Doherty
Australian Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition
Mobile 0418 290 663
Wednesday, February 1, 2017