Senators oppose military exemption

Pentagon's environmental proposals raise skepticism

January 22, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Key members of Maryland's congressional delegation expressed skepticism and outright opposition yesterday to the Pentagon's efforts to exempt military training from a raft of environmental laws.

Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both Democrats, said a recent series of articles in The Sun underscored the urgency of fully funding cleanup programs and of holding the military to the same environmental standards as industrial polluters.

"Parents shouldn't have to worry about chemicals leaking into their drinking water or what their kids might find while playing in the back yard," Mikulski said.

Sarbanes sharply criticized Pentagon efforts to slip free of some environmental laws but cautioned that moves to fight the legislation cut against the prevailing sentiment in the Republican-controlled White House and Congress.

The Pentagon's request for $1.8 billion in cleanup money in 2003 was its lowest in a decade, and a Pentagon official said yesterday that Congress was likely to allocate even less as budget deliberations grind on.

The Sun articles Sunday and Monday highlighted shortcomings in the military's cleanup of current and former defense sites. Though nearly 30 years have passed since the Pentagon started a nationwide cleanup of waste buried on bases, there is growing evidence that much has been overlooked.

Discarded grenades and mortar shells have turned up near houses at a former base in Cascade, while a rocket fuel ingredient spreading from Aberdeen Proving Ground was recently detected in the city of Aberdeen's tap water.

Questions about the thoroughness of the military cleanup come as many bases are preparing to begin new lives as housing subdivisions and parks.

Pentagon officials say they are committed to cleaning up the military's messes. But they say poor recordkeeping in the days before environmental laws and budget limits have hampered their efforts.

They say the proposed exemptions to laws dealing with endangered species, clean air and hazardous waste will have little impact on the environment, while freeing the military from frivolous lawsuits and stringent legal requirements that hurt their ability to ready troops for combat.

Pentagon officials stressed yesterday that their legislation would not affect the cleanup program. But environmental groups countered that one proposal would make it impossible to clean up toxic residue from active firing ranges until the pollution spreads off base.

U.S. Rep. John D. Dingell, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement that the recent articles echoed many findings of the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm. "Congress needs to conduct a full investigation into these threats to public health and safety and the Department of Defense's conduct in these matters," the statement said.

The only Maryland lawmaker on the House committee, Democrat Albert R. Wynn, called for a "review and thorough investigation" of the Pentagon proposals. The recent articles, he said, "shed light on the seriousness of hazardous waste cleanup, as well as the proximity of these sites to many of Maryland's communities."

Sarbanes denounced the Pentagon proposals as "extremely shortsighted at best" saying they were "not only hazardous to those troops at a contaminated site, but also to those on and off base not involved in the training exercises."

Not every Maryland lawmaker, however, has signaled opposition to the Pentagon proposals.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, voted last year to exempt military training exercises from a provision of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

A Bartlett spokesman said that the legislation freed military officials from responsibility for training exercises that accidentally kill birds. "They should not be responsible for something they didn't intend," said Lisa Wright.

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