By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Defense Department officials are hoping to use an upcoming defense authorization bill to expand the military's exemptions from several environmental and public health regulations, arguing that the restrictions infringe on national security.
The Pentagon has drafted provisions that would free it from specified laws on air pollution and hazardous waste, provisions the House and Senate Armed Services committees could take up this week as part of broader legislation giving the military spending authority.
Defense Department spokesman Glenn Flood emphasized that "this is not the first time" the military has sought waivers from long-standing environmental rules.
"The bottom line is we're not looking for any blanket exemptions on any of these. What we're looking for is some flexibility, if you will, so training will not be hindered," Flood said. He added that existing air pollution laws could block the firing of even non-explosive ammunition.
Environmentalists, joined by congressional Democrats and state and local officials, have launched an aggressive campaign to defeat the Pentagon's plan. They argue that the military -- which the government ranks as the nation's biggest polluter -- should meet its existing legal obligations. The Defense Department accounts for more than 10 percent of the country's top-priority Superfund cleanup sites and generated 16.5 million pounds of toxic waste in 2002, according to government estimates.
"Military servicemen and -women and their families are the ones who will suffer the most if DOD gets these exemptions," said Heather Taylor, deputy legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "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?"
The proposed legislation represents the latest effort by President Bush to exempt the military from federal laws aimed at protecting wildlife habitat and other ecosystems. Since 2001 the military has won exemptions from parts of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Craig Manson, assistant secretary of the interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the changes have allowed Pentagon planners to manage their bases more efficiently because they no longer have to consult with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials over critical wildlife habitat on military bases. The military has invoked the waiver "dozens of times" since Congress amended the Endangered Species Act in 2003, a Fish and Wildlife spokesman said.
"It's getting them out of a duplicative process," Manson said. "The species [are] already being managed properly."
This time, administration officials are focused on the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which governs hazardous waste. Their proposal includes capping the Pentagon's legal liability for cleaning up polluted sites once it sells land to a new owner, and allowing military areas that do not meet national air standards to remain that way for an additional three years.
Laura Olah, a mother of three from Merrimac, Wis., who has protested a nearby munitions plant's decision to dump carcinogenic material into drinking water, said lawmakers should not trust the military to serve as a public steward.
"DOD's legacy of mismanagement continues to impact my community today," Olah said in a telephone news conference sponsored by environmental groups. "DOD can clearly not rely on its own environmental record to support its call to be put above the law."
It remains unclear whether Congress will approve the Defense Department's request: Aides to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees said yesterday they could not comment until the two panels begin work on the legislation later this week. But Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who also sits on the Armed Services Committee, said that after the recent vote to approve drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he is optimistic that lawmakers will adopt the exemptions as well.
"He sees no reason why we can't get those exemptions through this year," said Inhofe spokesman Will Hart.