The military environmental complex

The Pentagon is pressing for more exemptions from federal environmental regulations. Are soldiers and their families among those paying the price?

Published May 13, 2005 5:50PM (EDT)

The U.S. military isn't just shutting down scores of military bases, it's also making quite a few of them toxic -- and wants to make the mess somebody else's problem. The Defense Department, the nation's single largest polluter, is now seeking major exemptions to the Clean Air Act, the Superfund law and a host of other health regulations, to giver it freer rein with training exercises. The Pentagon already secured amendments to the Endangered Species Act in 2003 under the same premise.

The military's justification for the changes sought today -- that environmental liabilities undermine training operations, even more of a detriment with the nation at war -- seems a long way from a declaration made by Dick Cheney at a meeting between environmentalists and the Pentagon during the Persian Gulf crisis in 1990. "Defense and the environment is not an either-or proposition," said Cheney, who served as secretary of defense at the time. "To choose between them is impossible in this real world of serious defense threats and genuine environmental concerns. The real choice is whether we are going to build a new environmental ethic into the daily business of defense."

The track record since then isn't exactly sparkling. According to the Associated Press, none of the 34 military bases on the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list since 1988 are completely cleaned up yet. The reason: hard-to-remove environmental pollutants have often already seeped into local groundwater.

Heather Taylor, a spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the Pentagon's proposed changes won't do much to benefit soldiers themselves. "Military servicemen and women and their families are the ones who will suffer the most if DoD gets these exemptions," she told the Washington Post. "Congress would never let a corporate polluter off the hook this way. Why in the world would Congress grant immunity to America's, and the world's, biggest polluter?"

By Julia Scott

San Francisco-based freelance journalist Julia Scott writes about water and energy issues for various publications. She also covers the environment for Bay Area News Group, a chain of newspapers in Northern California.

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