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More Than PFAS To Clean Up At Polluted Military Sites
Loving My Veteran Founder Stacy Hicks Speaks Out
Stacy Hicks comes from a long line of shipbuilders with four generations serving for the U.S. Navy. She is the granddaughter of a decorated Air Force Veteran. She’s lived on domestic military bases and has much pride for our flag and for all those who wear the uniform to protect our country.
When she had a health scare in 2020, she eventually uncovered toxic groundwater at military bases, making her extremely mad. She’s now spinning that anger into action and looking for others to get involved.
Stacy launched a new website called Project Your Voice, with a mission to help unify voices of veterans, active military, and their families, and to advocate for a change on a national stage.
The Backstory: DoD & Superfund
Before we get to her story, I want to give you a little bit of background on U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). It’s one of the world’s worst polluters. I write about this more extensively in my book, Superman’s Not Coming, but the gist is that many U.S. military bases, both on American soil and abroad, rank as some of the most polluted places in the world. Our military and their families lived on these bases and drank the water.
In 1980, the Comprehensive Environmental, Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, became law and it established the Superfund program to help clean up some of the country’s worst hazardous waste sites and to respond to local and national environmental emergencies.
A Superfund site is defined as any land that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the EPA as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment.
But since then, how many areas have been thoroughly cleaned? How many people are even aware that they exist? And when it comes to this story, hundreds of military sites make the list.
In addition, cleanup efforts were initially paid for by taxing the polluters, i.e. the chemical and petroleum industries. But lawmakers let the tax expire more than 25 years ago. Today, cleanup is essentially paid for by us, the taxpayers, who are also the ones dealing with the mess.
In fact, most of these sites are “discovered” when the presence of hazardous waste is made known to the EPA—meaning communities usually find them first because people get sick. These sites get placed on the National Priorities List (NPL), aka the worst of the worst sites.
We have almost 33,000 Superfund sites in the U.S. and counting. About 1,400 of them are on the NPL. They are full of asbestos, lead, radiation, and other hazardous materials and not getting cleaned up fast enough.
Climate change is also posing more threats to these toxic sites as more super storms, hurricanes, floods, and wildfires can stir up and spread the toxins to nearby communities.
About 73 million Americans live within three miles of a Superfund site, including 23 percent of all U.S. children under the age of five.
Connecting the Dots
Back to Stacy. She, her husband at the time who was an E-3 in the Navy, and two young children moved to California. They lived on base at the 2,807-acre Alameda Naval Station from 1991 to 1993, located on Alameda Island, right next to the city of Alameda.
“I was the typical military wife,” Stacy told me. “I went to work at the family service center, as it had always been in my nature to help others. We lived a normal life on the base. I gave my kids this water. My kids drank the Kool-Aid, literally. We didn’t know it was toxic.”
But a few things of note did happen there.
“I had a miscarriage when I was on that base,” she said. “The medical records of my miscarriage are gone.”
Her 4-year-old son developed what she called, “the worst asthma she had ever seen.” His healthcare providers didn’t understand it and eventually labeled it as allergy-induced asthma.
“We would go on picnics with homemade Kool-Aid,” she recalled. “This one day, after all the kids had their drinks and snacks, he had an asthma attack that was so bad, he almost died in my arms. We rushed him to the Naval hospital in Oakland.”
She also had five female friends who ranged in age from 25 to 32 in a 6-month period develop breast cancer on that base. None of them had a family history of breast cancer.
“Susan died,” Stacy said. “She was pregnant with twins and she could choose to treat her breast cancer or give birth to her children. She gave birth to her children and two years later she died.”
But she says, at the time, they didn’t think anything of it.
After her husband got out of the Navy, they resumed a normal, civilian life. She became a paramedic, and up until recently she was focused on big issues, like working on the pandemic.
She divorced her husband and then became involved with her current life partner. He’s a veteran who has dealt with PTSD. Together, they formed a veterans’ support group called Loving my Veteran to support others.
It was through this organization that she realized veterans were dealing with many big issues like healthcare such as not having access get care, cancelled appointments, delayed care and treatment of PTSD. She said many of the letters she received were heartbreaking.
But Stacy still didn’t know about the water issues. Last year, she was working as a paramedic in Savannah, Georgia. She worked 100 hours a week and ran two miles a day. She felt healthy.
“In January 2020, I got sick,” she said. “I had a pulmonary embolism on a roller coaster at Disney World, and it forever changed my life.”
Her doctor said it was unusual for a healthy, 54-year-old woman to experience that kind of health crisis. Three months into treatment, her pulmonologist suggested an autoimmune panel, because he thought there was something more going on with her.
“That immune panel led to all of the other stuff, and it turned out there was so much going on with me.”
She had autoimmune hepatitis (a type of chronic liver inflammation), which doesn’t quite follow the rules.
“My local doctors in Georgia couldn’t do anything; my case baffled them,” she explained. “They referred me to Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. I was immediately sent to the transplant team to hepatology. I was floored at how it happened so fast. It was very complex. They did all the biopsies and tests and found I had stage 4 cirrhosis of the liver, and not from drinking.”
She was referred to another specialist, a rheumatologist, who also felt her health issues were not normal. They diagnosed her with systemic lupus, antiphospholipid antibody syndrome (APS), a clotting disorder that occurs when the body's immune system makes antibodies that attack and damage tissues or cells.
“I bleed too easily and this created the pulmonary embolism,” she said. “It’s very rare.”
She had all these diagnoses going on and she didn’t qualify for a liver transplant because of the other autoimmune disorders.
“They’re not going to transplant a liver in someone with lupus or APS,” Stacy said. “The doctor said, ‘We’re going to try to slow it down, but you are going to die from this.’ I took a deep breath. At 54, that’s not what you want to hear.”
With all her health issues going on, a friend sent her a link about pollution on military bases.
“I looked at it and realized Alameda was on the list,” she said.
Stacy looked up Alameda’s list of contaminants of concern (COCs) and was shocked.
“I took every chemical one at a time and Googled the effects of the poisoning, every single one of them led back to what I have. One piece I found was the poisoning that creates liver damage is consistent with my bilirubin levels. My doctors couldn’t understand why my levels stayed so low. Also, I have no family history of an autoimmune disorder. None. And typically for lupus or autoimmune hepatitis, you have someone in your family that had it.”
As she went into research mode, she said her room began to look like an episode of CSI. The base she lived on with her family closed in 1997, as directed by the Base Realignment and Closure Act of 1990.
The EPA placed Alameda on the Superfund program’s National Priorities List in 1999.
“All liquid industrial wastewaters generated at the site prior to 1974 were discharged untreated into Seaplane Lagoon and the Oakland Inner Harbor,” according to the EPA’s website.
As Stacy kept digging, she found out that not only was the base full of toxic chemical in the soil and groundwater, but that the DoD knew about it.
“I have the documentation from the water authority of the base putting the poison into the tributaries that went into the San Francisco Bay from 1974,” she said. “They knew it was killing the fish. In 1983, the military studied the groundwater and found the poisoning of the groundwater for that particular base. They knew there were chemicals in the groundwater in 1983.”
When she first started her veterans’ group, she said the VA reached out to see if they wanted to partner with her.
“I told them no,” she said. “If I join your approved supporting partner list, then I have to follow your rules and I don’t want to follow your rules. I want to be the one to stand up and say this is no longer acceptable. I want to be the one who said, you killed our people. Our veterans and their families are disposable to them. They didn’t care, they knew. Why didn’t they put a water filtration system on my house? They knew! And they didn’t bother.”
Her doctors say her current health issues are terminal.
“I was so angry when I started, but I’m not angry anymore, I’m just pissed, and there’s a big difference,” Stacy said. “You can do a lot more when you are pissed then when you are in tears.”
The list of COCs at Alameda read like a toxic who’s who: arsenic, benzene, cyanide, trichloroethene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and many others. You can read the full list here.
While much attention has gone to the PFAS crisis happening on and off military bases, there’s a whole other list of toxic waste left behind that need to be cleaned up at these sites.
“Now, we’re dealing with the effects of the AFFF, and that’s great, but we’re not looking at all the other toxins, the buried ammunition, the lead from the paint, the jet fuel, the chromium, and the cyanide,” she said.
Let us know in the comments below if you’re concerned about this pollution. And don’t forget to get in touch with Stacy at Project Your Voice, if you want to join the cause.
Worried about a base near you? Use the search function at the EPA’s Superfund list.