Citing the imminent war with Iraq and the ongoing war on terrorism, the Bush administration is moving quietly to give the Pentagon broad exemptions to environmental laws that would, in the name of national security, allow the military to more freely pollute the air, contaminate land and water with toxic munitions, and threaten endangered species like whales and birds.
The measure would give the military near-absolute environmental authority on bases, bombing ranges and other military property totaling 30 million acres, a combined area larger than the state of Ohio. Republicans last week slipped the measure into the Defense Department's 2004 budget authorization bill, legislation that needs to be fast-tracked through Congress in order to keep the armed forces fully funded. Opponents say that this linkage, combined with the release of the initiative on the eve of war with Iraq, will make it much more difficult to properly study, debate, amend or reject the proposal.
"I have dealt with the military for years, and they constantly seek to get out from under environmental laws," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. "But using the threat of 9/11 and al-Qaida to get unprecedented environmental immunity is despicable." The exemptions are unneeded, since environmental-protection regulations have never interfered with military training and readiness, Dingell told Salon. If there ever is a conflict between the two, he added, environmental laws already provide for case-by-case exemptions.
Even within the Bush administration, the exemptions proposed last Thursday have provoked disagreement and opposition. The exemptions are similar to those proposed by the Bush administration last year, which Congress defeated. That bill, prompted by 9/11, would have given blanket exemptions from eight key environmental laws to all military forces conducting exercises.
The new, rewritten bill claims that the military is unable to prepare for war so long as it is hamstrung by provisions of the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (better known as the Superfund Law).
The administration claims that these laws hamper soldier training and military readiness. According to the environmental news service Greenwire, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testified at a Feb. 5 congressional hearing that the new exemptions will "clarify environmental statutes which restrict access to, and sustainment of, training and test ranges essential for the readiness of our troops and the effectiveness of our weapons systems in the global war on terror."
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, backed Rumsfeld's claim, noting that environmental issues affecting military training exercises must be resolved quickly, especially since military training facilities are now operating at "absolute peak" in anticipation of war, reported the Environment and Energy Daily. "We're not being fair to the military," Warner said.
Environmentalists vehemently disagree. "This bill is an attempt to roll back the laws that keep our air clean, that protect us from cancer caused by toxic waste, and that conserve our most endangered species," Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview. "To gut environmental protections on 30 million acres across our country is bad for local communities and for the soldiers who serve on those military bases, all who will have to deal with the health and environmental consequences. To undermine our environmental laws and ram this bill through Congress at this time, and in this way, is cynical even by the standards of this administration."
The U.S. military is already the worst polluter in the nation, with 28,000 current and formerly contaminated sites scattered across every state and extending to some far-flung territories.
The exemption bill would override laws for the disposal of hazardous waste by changing the definition of "solid waste" to exclude explosives, munitions, munitions fragments and other toxic material. It would allow spent, toxic munitions to be left lying exposed on target ranges where they can leach into lakes, rivers, marshes and groundwater. It would also weaken the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency and of state agencies to guard communities from Defense Department toxic waste, and would prevent the states from collecting damages against the Pentagon when its contaminants damaged sensitive natural resources, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In a recent New York Times report, environmentalists warned that the bill would also allow the Pentagon to pass the buck. Cleaning up the most contaminated hazardous-waste sites would be mostly paid for not by the military polluter but by state governments, which with their severely strained budgets can ill afford the expense.
"There are obvious environmental-justice implications to all of these hazardous-waste exemptions," Jasny said. "People that live near military bases and soldiers who live on those bases -- who are exposed to these environmental hazards -- are in many instances disproportionately of minority backgrounds and among our poorest citizens. Those are the people who will suffer most should this bill pass."
The Pentagon initiative would also lift the mandate for ensuring that military activities do not worsen air quality. Clean Air Act exemptions would broaden the definition of "training" to exclude even the control of emissions caused by nonmilitary activities, such as driving vehicles on military bases or even spraying pesticides on a right of way.
One need look no further than Fort Wainright, Alaska, to see the impact of giving the Pentagon a blanket air-quality exemption. The base's antiquated coal-burning power plant has been ordered to pay $16 million in air-quality fines to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over a 10-year period. It was cited for 450 state environmental violations in a single month.
Changes in another law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, seem intended to squelch litigious battles between environmentalists and the Navy over the implementation of a low-frequency active sonar system that may possibly lead to whale beachings and deaths. Last fall, a federal court stopped the Navy from deploying the system, pending a trial.
While the Navy says that the sonar system is vital for detecting enemy "stealth" submarines and that it will harm few whales, Marsh Green, the president of the Ocean Mammal Institute, disagrees. "There is a significant body of research showing that whales avoid underwater sounds starting at 110 to 120 decibels," the animal behavior specialist told the Christian Science Monitor. But "the sonar sound field around the [Navy] transmitting ship will be 180 decibels up to one kilometer (0.6 miles) away and 150 to 160 decibels up to 160 kilometers (100 miles) away This means that many marine animals will be exposed to sonar levels capable of causing stranding and, possibly, lung hemorrhaging over large areas of the ocean." Dr. Kenneth Balcomb, executive director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash., has likened the biological harm done by high-powered sonar to that caused by "fishing with dynamite."
Other military exemptions to the Endangered Species Act would do significant harm to America's natural heritage. "Although [Defense Department]-managed lands represent only about 3 percent of the total federal land inventory, there is strong evidence that they have disproportionate value in terms of biodiversity," states a 1996 Defense Department report. The report, jointly written by the Pentagon and the Nature Conservancy, goes on to say that there are "more than 220 Federally listed species as confirmed residents on, or migrants through, military lands." The new Endangered Species Act exemption would put all of those species at risk, while offering no significant benefit to national security.
"With regard to the Endangered Species Act, the military again seeks to have exemptions for which no other federal agencies are eligible," said Dingell. The act "requires that land where threatened or endangered species live be designated critical habitat. The military does not want to comply with this law like every other federal agency and every other American citizen does. As the author of [the Endangered Species Act], I can assure you that exemptions are available for reasons of national security. In fact, Section 7 of [the act] allows agencies to get waivers from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Ironically, the Pentagon wants a blanket waiver even though they have never sought a Section 7 exemption."
Critics of the Bush exemption plan have concluded that none of the blanket exemptions are necessary, noting that the Pentagon has failed to make a compelling case that existing environmental laws impede military readiness. Rep. Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the House Resources Committee, adds that existing exemptions "have worked quite well to ensure that our armed services remain combat-ready and that our homeland environment remains safe and healthy," reported the Washington Post.
A 2002 General Accounting Office study of military training, the Post also noted, found that training readiness remained high for most units and that military readiness data does not support the Pentagon's assertion of being hurt by environmental laws.
Also dissenting from the Pentagon view is Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman. "I don't believe there is any training mission in the United States that is being held up because of environmental regulations," she said last month in remarks reported by Environment and Energy Daily.
The National Park Service, too, has weighed in against the Pentagon exemption plan. Criticizing an early draft of the bill, the Park Service said its provisions "would cause substantial degradation of natural resources, including migratory birds, marine mammals and water quality."
While conservation groups expect a tough battle, they are unwilling to surrender any ground. Last year's congressional approval of a single component of the Defense Department's 2002 exemption package tells why. That measure led to a waiver freeing the Pentagon from adherence to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects 859 species of birds from harm.
"The provision, which was inserted at the Bush administration's request, will effectively give the Defense Department license to bomb and destroy at will the natural habitats of migratory birds, endangering more than 1 million birds and curtailing the enjoyment of more than 50 million bird enthusiasts in this country," said Dingell.
The first victim of last year's congressional surrender to Rumsfeld's Migratory Bird Treaty "clarification" may be the endangered Micronesian megapode, a pigeon-size gray-brown bird with a rough crest that uses solar energy to incubate its eggs. Fewer than 2,000 of the birds are known to exist on U.S.-controlled Pacific islands. Paradoxically, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeks to conserve and nurture the bird on some islands, the Navy is reserving the right to bomb it into oblivion on others.
Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental group, blocked Navy bombing exercises on the Pacific atoll of Farallon de Medinilla to protect the endangered bird. During the ensuing court case, the Bush administration's disdain for nature became clear with a now famous remark: A government lawyer argued that killing birds should not be considered a bad thing, because "bird watchers get more enjoyment spotting a rare bird than they do spotting a common one." The judge in the case ordered the Defense Department to stop bombing until it came into compliance with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
But congressional approval of the Bird Treaty exemption last autumn means that court judgment is now moot, and the Micronesian megapode may be headed toward extinction on Farallon de Medinilla. Large numbers of frigate birds and masked red-footed and brown boobies would also be targeted within the Navy's bombing sights.
The Bird Treaty waiver offers another example of Bush's disregard for international law. The treaty has been in effect since 1918, and it never presented an issue of national security in World War II, the Korean or Vietnam wars, or during the first war with Iraq.
In response to the Defense Department's chief claim that it is seeking a balance between military readiness and environmental protection, Jasny responds: "There is no balance in letting the military contaminate our drinking water, as they have done on Cape Cod; neglecting or abandoning deadly toxic waste sites, as they have done in minority communities like Anniston, Ala.; and causing whales to strand and die on our beaches."
Even in this time of great national uncertainty and fear of terror, the Pentagon might take a cue from an observation made in the mid-1990s by then-Defense Secretary William J. Perry. "Protecting our national security in the post-Cold War era," Perry said, "includes integrating the best environmental practices into all Department of Defense activities."