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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”:
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.
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.