WASHINGTON - Hoping to slow the Bush administration's missile defense program, several environmental groups plan to file a lawsuit today asserting that the Pentagon's plans for a missile defense test range in the Pacific will violate federal environmental rules.
The suit, to be filed in U.S. District Court here, contends the Pentagon must conduct a detailed analysis of the environmental impact of missile testing on Alaska, Hawaii, California and other places in the proposed test range.
Such environmental impact statements require public hearings and can take well over a year to complete. The Pentagon had planned to start construction on parts of the sprawling test range in Alaska and elsewhere early next year.
If a federal judge orders the military to produce the impact statement, the administration's efforts to have an "emergency" anti-missile system operating from Alaska by as early as 2004 could be seriously set back.
Such an order may also complicate the administration's assertion that it must withdraw within months from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the 1972 agreement with the Soviet Union that prohibits development of missile defense systems.
"Obviously, the hope is that delay will lead to cancellation," said Melanie Duchin, an Anchorage-based activist with Greenpeace, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "That's what we always hope for in these suits."
Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, said the missile program had already produced a detailed environmental impact statement that analyzed the effects of missile defenses on parts of North Dakota and Alaska, including Fort Greely near Fairbanks.
The Clinton administration had considered basing 100 missile interceptors at Fort Greely.
By contrast, the Bush administration has proposed building five missile silos at Fort Greely - initially for testing purposes, but eventually to be part of an operating missile defense system by as early as 2004.
"We did a complete EIS for Greely for 100 interceptors," Lehner said. "So if we have just five interceptors, that would seem to be not an issue and covered by the past EIS."
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has said that if the administration goes ahead with plans to build underground silos at Fort Greely, to house missile interceptors, it will be in violation of a treaty barring national missile defenses. That, Ivanov said, could spark an arms race.
"If those plans were realized in practice, they would seriously complicate negotiations and would signify the United States' exit from the ABM Treaty," Ivanov said last month. The Bush administration wants Russia to agree to amend or replace the treaty with an arrangement permitting defenses against long-range missiles.
President Bush flatly declared last week that the United States would withdraw "on our timetable" from the treaty, a long-standing cornerstone of arms control.
But he added, "I have no specific timetable in mind."
The treaty requires either side to give six months' notice of its intent to withdraw.
Administration officials told Congress last month that they have yet to sort out the legal ambiguities but that the missile defense work is likely to come in conflict with the ABM Treaty "in months rather than in years."
Initially, the silos at Fort Greely would be used to store interceptors rather than launch them for tests. But the site could also serve as an emergency launch facility in the event of a threatened missile attack, officials said.
The Associated Press and Reuters News Service contributed to this article.