Homeland threat

January 23, 2003

NOW THAT Tom Ridge has been confirmed by the Senate as the first secretary of homeland security, he can get right to work on what should be his first assignment: eliminating the toxic peril strewn all over the nation by a secretive, sloppy and mostly oblivious Pentagon.

It's hard to imagine that a terrorist network could match the U.S. military for polluting American soil and groundwater with chemical weapons, experimental bacteria, radioactive waste and live explosives, as reported by The Sun's Ariel Sabar earlier this week.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

And yet, in the through-the-looking-glass world that is Washington, Mr. Ridge will most likely be immediately consumed with bureaucratic tasks, while the Congress cuts funds for toxic waste clean-up and the Pentagon seeks exemption from environmental laws on the grounds that they impede military readiness.

Huh? What does the military need to be ready for if there's nothing left to defend?

To be fair to the folks in uniform, it's not as though they set out deliberately to poison and despoil the nation. The U.S. government only officially discovered the environment in the '70s. Sometime after Earth Day. Before then, the assumption was that everything could be dumped, and Mother Nature would take care of it.

That has since been proved disastrously naive. Some of the filthiest dump sites in the nation are right here in Maryland, notably at Aberdeen Proving Ground, the nation's largest test site for guns, tanks and ammunition, whose newspaper was once known as The Flaming Bomb.

But even the more enlightened military has not been enthusiastic about environmental protection. In the late 1980s, three civilian managers at a chemical weapons research plant were convicted of dumping dangerous chemicals at Aberdeen in violation of hazardous waste laws.

The Pentagon tried last year to win congressional exemptions from several environmental safeguards, but the Democratic-led Senate resisted all but a waiver of protections for migratory birds.

With Congress now in full Republican control, the Pentagon is making another run at it, arguing that preparing troops for combat is a higher priority than protecting the land, sea and air on which training is conducted when the two conflict.

Try telling that to the people of Aberdeen who are afraid to drink water contaminated with rocket fuel. Or to residents near Fort Detrick, where the ground has been polluted with cancer-causing agents and a form of anthrax.

Mr. Ridge has warned Congress of a "remorseless enemy that takes many forms, hides in many places and doesn't distinguish between innocent civilians and military combatants."

He could easily be talking about the nonchalance with which we may be poisoning ourselves.

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