Long Story Short

An annotated history of the 30-year fight over a single polluted Air Force base.

Tyndall Air Force Base opened in 1941 on a 29,000-acre spit of sand dunes and coastal wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico. It’s been an elite command training and tactical combat center ever since.

It’s where today the Air Force trains F-22 fighter pilots, and holds live-fire air-to-air combat competitions.

This corner of the state is also Florida’s vacationland. Residents and tourists fish and swim in the clear, tropical waters. It’s a public treasure.

In many ways, Tyndall is a typical military base, with typical problems. Which is to say it’s an environmental hazard.

Over the years, machine shops on the base dumped fuels and chemicals. For a while, the Air Force buried drums of waste in dirt trenches and burned explosives in open fields, in the process leaching toxins into the soil and water. Firing ranges left munitions and lead scattered across thousands of acres on the base — including areas that have come to be used by the public.


In 1980, the Department of Defense acknowledged its pollution issues at many of its bases in the U.S. and sent a policy statement directing bases like Tyndall to pursue cleanups and comply with federal environmental laws.

The issues at Tyndall, though, were many and particularly complex. At one point, the Air Force discovered 45 tons of DDT, the banned and likely carcinogenic pesticide, near an abandoned shack, leaching into the local waters. And in 1987, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection was finding more serious problems, noting that the Air Force “seemed unconcerned” about them.

There were other signs that the base was not inclined to change how it operated. By 1992, state inspectors uncovered evidence that workers at Tyndall were illegally dumping hazardous waste.

“During July 1991, three military personnel from the 325 CES Pavement/Equipment shop informed their new supervisor of previous on-base dumping that had been allegedly ordered by their former supervisor who is now retired.”

—Robert Kriegel, Florida Department of Environmental Regulation

A year later, in 1993, the Army Corps of Engineers, which is often involved in military clean-ups, tried to prioritize the problems at Tyndall, identifying a dozen of the highest-risk sites, including two former landfills, an explosives testing range, the pesticide disposal area, and other dump sites.

Much was at risk, on the base and surrounding it. Tyndall is encircled by a sensitive saltwater ecosystem stretching along 60 miles of coastline.

Its marshes, ponds and forests of pine, maple and cypress are popular among duck hunters and commercial fishing businesses. Shrimp, scallops and oysters are harvested out of the waters of St. Andrews Bay, and the base itself uses at least 14 water wells drilled into the underlying Floridan Aquifer. Some 20,000 residents live on Tyndall Air Force base, including children. Another roughly 160,000 people live in nearby Panama City and the surrounding area.

One other problematic site on the base — one packed daily with children — didn’t even make the Army Corps’ list.

In 1992, a child attending Tyndall’s on-base elementary school found lead pellets on the playground. The Air Force investigated and found lead shot across the school grounds. Though soil samples just a few feet outside of the school’s fenceline detected lead at 50 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s advisory limit, the Air Force’s cursory testing on school grounds found that concentrations were within safe limits for exposure. The contamination was downplayed by the Air Force and the possibility that the lead shot itself could be prevalent enough to pose a danger was dismissed after a modest cleanup.

“Test results found lead concentrations in soil at Tyndall Elementary School ranging from 7.2 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) to 20,000 mg/kg. … The EPA standard for lead in residential bare-soil play areas is 400 mg/kg.”

—U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

In 1994 and 1995, responding to years of concerns, the EPA conducted a thorough on-site investigation of hazardous waste and pollution at Tyndall. It documented widespread contamination and concerns across at least 36 separate sites.

”Tank bottom sludges from petroleum storage operations have been buried at POL Area A Sludge Trenches … Rainwater that collects in the diked area around the tanks is discharged onto the soil in the trench area

“… available references indicate that there have been numerous releases of fuels and solvent materials to the environment. These have occurred as a result of standard operating methods (i.e., fire training exercises, tank sludge burial), unauthorized dumping, and through “de minimis” losses during routine operations.”

“A drum of pesticide and herbicide was reportedly buried in a pit at the Pesticide Disposal Area.”

“Tank sludges containing lead (K052) were routinely placed in unlined trenches.”

“Ground-water sampling conducted at the Shell Bank Fire Training Area (SWMU 16) detected cliloroethane, i , 1-dichioroethane, i ,2-dichloroethane, i , 1- dichioroethylene, benzene, lead and petroleum hydrocarbons in the surficial aquifer.”

—RCRA Facility Assessment, July 1995

The findings made Tyndall a prime candidate for listing as a federal Superfund site. That would have huge implications for the Pentagon — giving the EPA and Florida officials ultimate authority over what gets cleaned up at Tyndall and when, and likely increasing the cost and scope of the Air Force’s environmental liabilities.

The Air Force vehemently insisted that having Tyndall declared a Superfund site was not necessary.

“Since the listing will be published, Tyndall will encounter public scrutiny, regulatory scrutiny will dramatically increase.”

—Brig. Gen. John H Campbell, Commander, 325th Fighter Wing

Internal Air Force letters from 1996 show officials discussed the seepage of what they called “previously used carcinogenic pesticide,” the DDT, into the sediment of Shoal Point Bayou, on the base’s coastline, and that the DDT had been found in animal and plant tissues there. The Air Force described the problem as its “top priority.”

And yet for years, little had been done about it. The DDT was among the issues cited by the EPA, and the Air Force understood that the EPA was acting after years of the Pentagon’s failure to address it and other long-standing environmental issues.

“As I understand it, while this project has been Tyndall's #1 priority for several years, we’ve not made significant progress because the funding continues to slip. Seems unrealistic to expect EPA/Florida to agree not to place us on NPL unless we can show an alternate plan.”

—Brig. Gen. Campbell

The Air Force scrambled to come up with a proposal that would keep the EPA at bay and Tyndall off the Superfund list.

By May 1996. the Air Force wrote to Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, lobbying him to withdraw support for the EPA’s plans.

“We’re working this at the local level. Our local regulators were surprised by this action. No one knows how/why Gov. Chiles weighed in, or what staffing took place at the state level. Seems to me we need to do 2 things if we want to avoid the NPL: (1) We need to come up with an alternate clean-up plan to which we can attach some milestones and guarantee some funding.”

—Brig. Gen. Campbell

The Air Force drafted a strongly worded warning for the governor that the Defense Department’s cooperation with state and federal environmental regulators could be lost.

“Tyndall is currently showing good faith efforts to identify the nature and extent of contamination at the site … Listing the base on the NPL damages the spirit of cooperation and openness that Tyndall has worked hard to create.”

—1995 internal Air Force draft of arguments against Superfund

In June 1996, the EPA formally announced its plans to list Tyndall as a Superfund site anyway, and the site was listed the following year.

The listing enraged Air Force officials, who insisted that it would raise costs for taxpayers and exaggerated the environmental risks at the base.

The Air Force argued that cleanup of the pesticide contamination — the most serious problem at the base — was already underway. Defense officials even argued the EPA was motivated by pettiness, and was using Superfund to enlarge its own budget.

“As for the conference call last week, Col. Smith did the best job he could presenting our position. However, it became apparent that the EPA (Mr. Johnson) has his mind made up. His position is, ‘If you were really planning on doing this anyway, what’s the big deal?’ There are also allegations — not mentioned during the call — he is doing this to increase the manpower in his own office. It is also clear the state is rolling over with the EPA.”

—Nelson Rutter, Tyndall’s deputy base civil engineer

When federal facilities, including Pentagon properties, are declared Superfund sites, the law requires both the Air Force, in this case, and the EPA to sign a legal agreement defining the boundaries of jurisdiction and authority.

But for the next 16 years the Air Force refused to sign that legal agreement for Tyndall.

By 2007, EPA officials were so fed up with the Air Force’s failure to cooperate that the agency issued an emergency measure, something called an “imminent and substantial endangerment” order under federal hazardous waste laws.

The order exhaustively detailed dangerous levels of contamination across the Tyndall base and stated that the Air Force had done little to control access to these areas or limit public exposure.

“Military and civilian workers have access to areas of contamination throughout the 29,000 acre Facility because the base does not have a land use control program and because physical barriers, such as fences, are not present to prevent unacceptable exposures.”

—EPA Administrative Order

The Air Force did not substantively respond.

A few months later, the EPA followed up with legal documents outlining specific deadlines and next steps for Air Force officials.

In May 2008, Air Force lawyers responded, notifying EPA officials that they did not recognize the EPA’s legal authority to force the environmental cleanups outlined in the imminent endangerment order.

“The Air Force … continues to challenge this Order as lacking legal and factual basis. This Order, as well as similar Orders EPA has issued at two other Air Force installations and one Army installation, have been referred to OSD for submission to both DOJ and OMB as interagency disputes for resolution under applicable Executive Orders.”

—Department of the Air Force

Meanwhile, that August, the Air Force once again discovered lead pellets spread across the yard at Tyndall Elementary School.

It turned out the school was sited on an old gunnery range that had been strewn with munitions for years. The Air Force should have known that. But even after it rediscovered the problem, it allowed the children attending the school to finish out the academic year. It also waited before notifying the EPA — or the children’s parents.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did an analysis of the health threat at the school, declaring an “urgent public health hazard” and finding that children may have been exposed to lead — which inhibits brain development — for more than a decade.

“Lead shot (pellets) and lead fragments found on the Tyndall Elementary School grounds presented an urgent public health hazard to children who may have ingested the lead shot (pellets) prior to the removal action. The Time Critical Removal Action was warranted. While most of the lead shot has been removed along with the sand and soil, lead shot and lead fragments may still remain on the school grounds near sidewalks and utility conduits.”

—2012 Health Consultation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

Worse, the CDC concluded that because lead quickly leaves the blood stream, the Air Force’s delay in notifying parents made it impossible to know exactly how much lead the children were exposed to. Still, two of the children tested positive for small amounts of lead in their bloodstreams.

“ATSDR cannot determine the impact that lead shot in the playground has had on the Tyndall Elementary School students because of the low numbers of children tested and the delay from the time of possible exposure to the time when blood testing was conducted. … Two of the 102 children who had blood lead testing showed blood lead levels Basis of 6 micrograms per deciliter, higher than the national average and the 95 upper percentile which may indicate lead exposure.”

—U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The Air Force’s years of apparent negligence and explicit defiance of federal environmental law at Tyndall drew the scrutiny of the federal Government Accountability Office in 2010.

The GAO focused on Tyndall as a prime example of the military slowing progress at Superfund sites across the country.

“Tyndall has delayed cleanup progress by generally demonstrating a pattern of not complying with federal laws and regulations concerning environmental cleanup. In addition, Tyndall has on multiple occasions delayed disclosures about newly found contaminants or associated risks for months or failed to disclose them entirely, furthering delay of cleanup.”

—GAO Report to Congressional Requesters, July 2010

Shortly after that report, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Terry Yonkers only dug in harder against the EPA’s demands. In a letter to Cynthia Giles, the EPA’s then assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance, he offered the Air Force’s own version of a legal agreement with the EPA that sharply differed from the original.

“The Air Force supports supplemental work at sites if there is good reason and justification for doing so, but we cannot accept EPA's premise that these operable units should be reopened simply because the hard work by all parties was not conducted under the administration of a signed FFA. Moreover, mandating that any such “suspicious areas” be forced into the elaborate, time consuming, and costly study and analysis process is a poor use of taxpayer dollars and inconsistent with current law and practice.”

—Terry Yonkers, Dec. 22, 2010

Giles had recently accused Yonkers and Air Force officials at Tyndall of intentional inaccuracies in their reporting that were “likely to confuse and mislead the public,” and of “refusing to comply” with the EPA’s orders.

The argument continued this way until 2013, when the EPA’s director for federal facility compliance wrote a scathing letter to the Pentagon’s top environmental officials in the office of the Secretary of Defense. The Air Force, the letter said, had willfully operated outside of the scope of the law, ignored federal environmental regulations, and then lied to the public about the safety of its sites and the Air Force’s lack of progress in addressing problems.

The letter laid out specific concerns, calling Tyndall “one of the nation’s most significantly contaminated sites”:

“EPA concerns with conditions at Tyndall Air Force base, which are detailed in the attachment, include:

1. Significant contamination at Tyndall, which presents serious public health and environmental risks.

2. The inadequacy of the Air Force’s unilateral cleanup activities to protect public health and the environment.

3. The Air Force’s compliance violations, including its failure to comply with a final, valid RCRA imminent and substantial endangerment order.

4. The insufficiency of a proposed state-based memorandum of agreement as a substitute for lawful and accountable cleanup oversight.

5. Questions of financial management integrity at Tyndall.

6. Inaccurate Air Force representations about Tyndall, which may mislead the public.

—2013 letter from EPA to Undersecretary of Defense

Later that year, the Air Force finally signed a legal agreement for Superfund, becoming the second-to-last defense site in the country that the EPA has listed under Superfund to do so.

It took 16 years to get an agreement in place, after more than 16 years of wrangling that preceded it. In the four years since the Air Force finally signed, here’s what’s been done: The top 12-to-24 inches of soil was removed from the elementary school grounds and its parking lot was repaved, sealing in contaminants. Other minor cleanups are underway. The Air Force has installed water monitoring wells and investigated the scope of contamination at several old firing ranges, collecting data that will guide a clean up.

But few cleanups have been completed, and progress at many of significant sites on the base has been slow. Outside firms contracted by the Air Force have in some cases held things up. “Work is delayed,” the EPA’s remedial project manager for the Tyndall site, Robert Pope, told ProPublica earlier this year. “It’s not that there are not things that are moving forward, but not everything is moving forward.”

One of the most important items still to be addressed? The DDT first identified in coastal waters in 1985.

Abrahm Lustgarten is a senior environmental reporter, with a focus at the intersection of business, climate and energy.

Emma Cillekens, Lauren Gurley and Eli Kurland, students in the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute graduate studies program, contributed reporting for this story. Other students in the program who also contributed were Nina Hedevang, Clare Victoria Church, Alessandra Freitas, Razi Syed and Alex Gonzalez.

Design and production by David Sleight.

Image credits: Tyndall map imagery: DigitalGlobe, U.S. Geological Survey, USDA Farm Service Agency; F-22 model: krung99/iStock/Getty Images; Florida postcard: Found Image Holdings Inc/Getty Images; chemical diagrams: Wikimedia Commons; Swim area photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images; fisherman: International Game Fish Association; bullets: Ashley Gilbertson/VII photo, special to ProPublica.

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