Thursday, April 17, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Michael Houlemard, director of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority, says the Pentagon''s move to get out from under environmental regulations will cause problems.
Now pending before Congress is a request from the Pentagon for exemption from a vast array of longstanding federal environmental protection laws. Claiming that the environmental rules that defend our land, water, air, wildlife and human health interfere with the military''s ability to defend the country, the Department of Defense (DoD) has been trying to pass its Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative (RRPI).
Under the proposal, the military would be granted rule changes and exemptions from important legal protections, such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Marine Mammals Protection Act (MMPA), the Clean Air Act, the Superfund law known as the Clean Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
The military claims that the need to get carte blanche from environmental law is a question of balance between readiness and stewardship--that environmental protection impedes the use of war machinery to the point of affecting military preparedness. However, according to a partisan rebuttal to the proposal, prepared March 31, by Democratic staffs of the House Committees on Energy and Commerce and the Resource Committee, "The DoD has not cited any examples or instances where RCRA, CERCLA, or the Clean Air Act has ever caused an actual adverse effect on military readiness."
Christie Todd Whitman, Bush''s director of the Environmental Protection Agency, told Congress on Feb. 26 that she was "not aware of any particular area where environmental protection regulations are preventing the desired training."
As it is now, exemptions can be granted during times of national emergency. The military just has to ask. If the RRPI makes it off Capitol Hill intact, no requests will be needed.
There are various examples the military uses to justify the exemption, such as soldiers not being allowed to dig foxholes at Fort Hood and Camp Pendleton, or "Navy ships not being able to use their sonar equipment during key training events, including training and testing activities."
Another example cites reduced training time and equipment wear for having to ship National Guardsmen from Cape Cod to Fort Drum, NY, for exercises because they can''t train at Massachusetts Military Reservation (MMR) anymore. They can''t train at the MMR because years of artillery training and other activities are believed to have poisoned the source of fresh drinking water for all of Cape Cod.
One aspect of the proposed exemptions that terrifies ocean conservationists is the likelihood that exemptions from the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) would allow the Navy to test its long range sonar system, which has been blamed for several whale deaths. Whales rely on being able to hear to navigate, and the high-powered naval sonar system (used for spotting submarines across the ocean) is thought to deafen and kill whales and other marine mammals.
The Ocean Conservancy is opposing the exemptions: "These proposed changes would significantly weaken the MMPA by modifying the definition of ''harassment;'' providing new authority for blanket exemptions; and eliminating existing restrictions on the number of geographic areas where marine mammals may be harassed or injured as a result of military actions."
With the nation at war, resistance to the DoD proposal can be expected to be light. At a congressional hearing on March 13, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Raymond F. Dubois Jr. told lawmakers, "I have said many times before, ''we need to train as we fight, but the reality is we fight as we train.'' Our collective task is to find the appropriate and necessary balance between the use of military lands for their unique readiness purposes and the protection of our nation''s environmental heritage."
It may sound benign, but it''s had the effect of sounding a man-your-battle-stations alarm to politicians, environmentalists, and public health and conservation groups.
"The Pentagon should not be above the law. The people who live around these bases deserve equal protection under the law," says Tara Thornton, director of the Military Toxics Project (MTP), an advocacy group that calls for environmental accountability from the Pentagon.
Thornton has been tracking this initiative. Last year, part of the package did make it through, granting exemptions from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The rest of the bill stalled.
"The reason it didn''t pass is they gave it to Congress at the 11th hour last year," Thornton says. "There were a lot of members who were really pissed off about that."
With a War on Terror and a war in Iraq, the deck is stacked against the opposition. Despite that, MTP sent a letter to Congress on March 31, along with 70 citizen and environmental advocacy groups--some of them from communities adjacent to military bases-- demanding the initiative''s defeat.
"The reason we have contamination at these bases is that the military didn''t have to comply for years and years, and that''s the reason we''re in the situation we''re in now," Thornton says.
Congressman Sam Farr''s office has taken notice as well.
"We''re starting to mobilize," says Troy Phillips, Farr''s senior legislative assistant. "It''s going to be a sticky issue with the war on. The military is really riding high right now."
The effects of such a relaxation of environmental rules could be widespread and devastating. One provision would change the definitions such that the military would not be required to clean up spent explosives and toxic weaponry, which has major consequences for closed, polluted installations like For Ord.
"They could just possibly stop cleaning up at Fort Ord," Phillips says. "One of our questions is should national defense come at the expense of what we''re trying to defend?--that''s the United States and its citizens."
The proposal will be taken up when the committees look at the Defense Authorization Bill in early May after the Easter recess.
"The ironic thing is it''s supposed to be in the committee on May Day," Phillips says.
Michael Houlemard, director of the re-use authority at Fort Ord, has concerns that the RRPI sets a very bad precedent that allows selective application of the law for some and not others.
"You don''t want to set up a caste system. Where does that stop? It should be the same for everybody," he says. "There''s a slippery slope there."
However, there are more Bush Administration efforts that do affect Fort Ord. What really alarms Houlemard is the reduced request by the Department of Defense for base cleanup. Last year it got $200 million to remedy military pollution at thousands of facilities across the US. This year the department has only asked for $68 million.
Hacking the overall clean-up allocation by two-thirds will delay progress.
"We need $20 million a year for the next 10 years," Houlemard says. "The Army has spent $290 million here so far, since 1993. That same amount is going to be required for cleanup. More probably. If the military had looked at how to handle this many moons ago, they might have been more focused and less distributive [with land use for training]. That would have been less costly to taxpayers if they''d thought it through."
According to Houlemard, the reduction in cleanup spending came right from the top.
"The Department of Defense isn''t too upset about this. This is a Bush administration determination."
Houlemard has plans to meet with EPA Director Christie Todd Whitman next month to discuss how some environmental law changes and other legislative issues affect the ongoing cleanup at Fort Ord.
"They sort of haven''t been acting like they''re paying attention lately," he says.