Pentagon seeking environmental exemptions

January 19, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Pentagon officials say they will return to Capitol Hill this year to seek legislation exempting the military from key environmental laws. The military will renew arguments that laws protecting the air, endangered species and public health are hurting its ability to train troops for combat.

Last year, a skeptical Congress rejected all but one of the nine proposed exemptions. But with Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress and the White House, the Pentagon is expected to have an easier time making its case.

One influential senator already in the military's corner is Oklahoma Republican James M. Inhofe, the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

"He wants to give the military, especially in a time of war, a freer hand in what they want to do," said Mike Catanzaro, a spokesman for Inhofe, who also sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Critics say that the legislation would give the military license to run roughshod over the environment and that case-by-case exemptions from environmental protections are possible under existing law.

"Remember, we fought in Korea, we fought in Vietnam, we fought in Desert Storm and there was no significant obstacle to the success of our military because of" environmental laws, said Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees many environmental laws. The legislation, he contends, would offer "absolution for all manner of wrongdoing."

The Pentagon says its proposals will have no significant effect on the natural world while shielding the military from frivolous lawsuits and a thicket of legal requirements that increase costs and impede training. Last March, a judge invoked the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in halting the Navy's use of Farallon de Medinilla, a small bombing range in the Western Pacific where seabirds have been killed during bombing runs.

Another recent lawsuit charges the Army with solid-waste violations at Alaska's Fort Richardson.

"They claim that a howitzer shell leaving a tube and landing in the ground is a discharge of toxic or hazardous waste," says Raymond F. DuBois Jr., the Defense Department's deputy undersecretary for installations and environment. "The Congress did not intend those laws to be used this way, but environmental groups are in some cases using those laws to stop or impede our ability to train realistically."

As the military's Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative legislation was under debate last April, a group of 20 conservation groups sent a joint letter to Congress denouncing "broad sweeping exemptions" that would "likely result in irreparable harm to public health and the environment."

Environmental groups worry that freeing the government's largest polluter from environmental laws could invite similar requests from other federal agencies and industry.

Some have accused the Pentagon of capitalizing on public fears of terrorism.

"Unfortunately, the Department of Defense has decided to use the current environment to achieve what they have wanted for years," says Grant Cope of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Last year, Congress approved one exemption, to a portion of the migratory bird act.

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