An investigative report by an international news agency has brought Congressional scrutiny on lead-based paint issues in older housing at military installations, specifically many of the older and historic homes Fort Benning used to house soldiers and their families.
On Aug. 16, Reuters published the report of its investigation detailing dangerous lead levels and cases of childhood poisoning on several Army installations across the country, including at Fort Benning. The Reuters report focused on Army Col. J. Cale Brown and his family’s struggles with lead poisoning of one of his children while they lived on post at Fort Benning about eight years ago.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed a bi-partisan amendment in response to the news agency’s report. The amendment filed Wednesday to legislation currently under consideration on the Senate floor would require the Government Accountability Office to report on the monitoring and remediation of lead and verifiable compliance with lead exposure limits in military housing.
Georgia Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue have been raising questions about the housing conditions since the Reuters report was published. Isakson and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., co-sponsored the amendment.
“The recent reports regarding lead poisoning in some military housing units is disturbing and must absolutely be corrected,” Isakson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in a statement. “Our military families sacrifice greatly in service to our country, and it is our responsibility to do everything we can to ensure their safety.”
Families are the backbone of the military, said Perdue, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We owe it to our men and women in uniform to ensure their families have access to safe and comfortable housing on base, especially here on American soil,” he said. “I am concerned with the recent reports that military families and children have been exposed to dangerous lead conditions at Fort Benning and other installations across the country. We are actively working to get more information from the Army, so we can chart the best path forward and improve the safety of on-base housing at Fort Benning and beyond.”
At least 1,050 small children tested high for lead at Army hospitals and clinics in recent years, Reuters found, but many of these results were going unreported to state health authorities. The Army told Reuters it has since begun reporting the test results.
The lengthy Reuters report highlights cases of lead poisoning at on-base housing at Fort Knox, Ky.; Fort Polk, La.; Fort Bliss, Texas; and Fort Hood, Texas. A 2015 Department of Defense Inspector General report that found lead paint hazards at Fort Belvoir, Va., according to a news release from the senators.
Lead-based paint issues are primarily found in homes that were built before 1978, when the sale of lead-based paint was banned.
At Fort Benning, that is a significant piece of the on-post housing inventory.
“There are 1,191 homes that pre-date 1978 that have not completed significant renovation, including 493 historic homes,” said Fort Benning spokesman Ben Garrett in an email response to questions from the Ledger-Enquirer. “All of these, like most in the United States, have lead-based paint encapsulated in painted surfaces. Per EPA guidelines we inform all of our residents who voluntarily reside in these homes. We make sure homes are ready to move into when the lease is signed and that the home is safe and meets EPA standards.”
Fort Benning housing was privatized more than a decade ago. The post’s housing is managed by Villages of Benning.
“The privatized housing partner Villages of Benning, has an on-going strategy to replace windows, garages, and plumbing which further reduces chance exposure risk,” Garrett said. “The garrison command and Villages of Benning send periodic reminders to residents to watch for changes to conditions of lead-based paint and to report problems. The garrison command and the Villages of Benning take Soldiers’ and Families’ safety very seriously. This is our top priority and why we inform and immediately respond to any report of exposed lead-based paint.”
The Congressional push for accountability started the day after the Reuters report.
Isakson and Perdue along with Virginia Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner sent a letter to the Secretary of the Army Mark Esper, raising concerns about lead poisonings and dangerous lead levels in housing on U.S. Army installations, including Fort Benning.
“We write to you today concerned about recent reports of lead poisoning at a number of Army installations. The health and safety of our service members and their families are of the utmost importance,” the senators wrote.
They were requesting action from Esper.
“We ask that you provide our offices with a detailed briefing as soon as possible outlining the immediate and long-term mitigation strategy to keep military families safe, provide medical treatment for those potentially or previously affected, make long-lasting repairs, and finally, provide legislative proposals or guidance on legislation needed to hold maintenance contractors accountable,” the senators wrote.
Since that letter, McCaskill, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have joined the cause, so-sponsoring the amendment.
“It is unacceptable when those who risk everything to serve our nation cannot feel safe in their own homes on base,” Paul said. “Our amendment would ensure accountability from the Department of Defense regarding its efforts to address dangerous lead exposure in military housing and help guarantee an effective response, while also providing greater peace of mind to our military families.”