By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Five Senate Democrats wrote to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday, chastising the Pentagon for resisting orders from the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up three contaminated military bases in their states.
They also slammed the Pentagon's refusal to sign cleanup agreements required by law covering 12 other sites on the Superfund list of the nation's most polluted sites.
"We would like to know why your department is endangering the public health," wrote Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), who was joined by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.), Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.).
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said yesterday she will hold hearings on the matter.
Menendez, Lautenberg and Nelson have also asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate.
"Some of the toxic chemicals dumped there are known to cause cancer or other serious health problems," Menendez wrote to the GAO. "Yet the DOD has failed to act aggressively as they slowly seep into the soil and drinking water aquifers and create environmental problems for generations to come."
A Pentagon spokesman said that the agency had not yet received the letter, but that the military stands behind its work.
"No entity in the world, government or private sector, has spent more money -- or more effort -- than the Defense Department has on environmental cleanup, cleanup research, cleanup assessment, technology to conduct cleanup, cleanup operations and cleanup follow-up monitoring," spokesman Chris Isleib said.
The letters followed an article yesterday in The Washington Post describing a standoff between the EPA and the Defense Department over the cleanup of McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, Fort Meade in Maryland and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.
Citing "imminent and substantial danger" to public health and the environment, the EPA issued final orders last year to compel the military to clean up those sites.
But last month, the Pentagon informed the Justice Department that it was challenging the EPA's authority and asked the Office of Management and Budget to intervene on its behalf.
Federal law says that when there is a dispute between agencies over the cleanup of a Superfund site, the EPA has final say. The fight has created a legal limbo, because under executive branch policy the EPA will not sue the Pentagon to force compliance, as it would a private polluter.
Since President Bush took office, the military has increasingly challenged the EPA. This year, the Pentagon won greater influence in the process the government uses to establish the health risks of industrial chemicals -- a change widely criticized by congressional Democrats, environmental groups and the GAO.
The Pentagon also has fought the EPA's efforts to set new pollution standards on two toxic chemicals widely found on military sites: perchlorate, found in propellant for rockets and missiles, and trichloroethylene (TCE), a metal degreaser.
Pentagon officials say they have been voluntarily cleaning McGuire, Fort Meade, Tyndall and 126 other military sites on the Superfund list of 1,225 places. The Pentagon has the most Superfund sites of any single entity. The EPA maintains that the military's voluntary program is not timely or sufficient.
In their letter to Gates, the senators said the Pentagon's failure to aggressively attack contamination has created a national problem.
"These concerns are not limited to the three bases in our home states but have arisen at another 12 Superfund sites and at thousands of bases throughout the country," Menendez wrote. "The Department of Defense appears willing to go to great lengths to avoid these cleanups."