Pentagon's obstinacy

Our view: Defense Department must clean up contaminated sites

July 02, 2008

Refusing to clean up a hazardous waste site despite orders from the Environmental Protection Agency is both contemptible and arrogant. It's also against the law. But that hasn't persuaded the U.S. Department of Defense to follow through on its cleanup responsibilities at Fort Meade and two other military installations. The Pentagon's refusal to act should have consequences beyond a round of bad publicity.

Maryland's senators are pushing for a congressional hearing on the dispute between the DOD and the EPA. But Pentagon officials may need more than a public tongue-lashing to make them comply with the EPA orders. Holding up defense appropriations might get their attention and force an appropriate response.

The dispute between the two federal agencies centers on contaminated sites at Maryland's Fort Meade, Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, where landfills, firing ranges, ammunition dumps and buried pollutants have fouled the soil and groundwater. The DOD has spent millions of dollars voluntarily to clean up these and other sites, but it balked at the EPA's latest order that includes an accelerated timetable for finishing the work and imposes penalties for missed deadlines. The EPA responded by adding Fort Detrick in Frederick County - the site of the Army's center for biological and chemical warfare research - to its list of Superfund cleanup sites.

The Defense Department's refusal to comply with the EPA order was first reported by The Washington Post this week. The DOD is the nation's largest polluter, and its behavior in this case sends the wrong signal to other polluters - resist, delay and resist some more. The contaminated sites, according to the EPA, pose a safety and health risk to the public. That's reason enough for the DOD to stop its blatant disregard of the law and move ahead with the cleanup.

While the EPA can't sue the Pentagon to settle disputes over environmental policy, there is an administrative remedy that EPA lawyers should pursue. The DOD's attempt to get another agency to mediate the dispute reflects a "do it my way" attitude that is completely unacceptable. The department isn't above the law, and it should be held accountable for both its actions and its failure to act. If this matter can't be resolved between the agencies, the state of Maryland should go to court to force the DOD to clean up its act.

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