Military Doesn't Want to Go Greenby Charles Pope, Washington Correspondent
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 13, 2003
Pentagon pushing for exemption from environmental laws
WASHINGTON -- In a contest of two powerful priorities, a pair of congressional committees today will consider whether the military should be allowed to damage the environment in the name of national security.
The question, which is before both the House and Senate Armed Services Committee, won't be settled today. But it has ignited a sharp debate and even sharper disagreements over how far the nation should go to ensure that its military is properly trained and prepared.
At issue is a request by the Pentagon -- backed by President Bush -- that would exempt the military from major requirements of five bellwether environmental laws. The laws form the foundation of the nation's efforts to protect clean air and the health of marine mammals, clean up toxic waste sites and ensure safe handling and disposal of hazardous waste.
For Washington state bases, it is unclear what effect the change would bring, but the stakes are high. There are more than a dozen military facilities, including several large installations in the Puget Sound area. Fort Lewis Army Base and McChord Air Force Base are in Tacoma, while the Navy has an air station on Whidbey Island, a large shipyard in Bremerton and a station in Everett.
Paul Steucke, chief of the environment and natural resources division at Fort Lewis, said the base has had many successes over the years in finding a balance between environmental protection and military necessity.
"I can't honestly tell you (troops) can't continue their mission," Steucke said, adding, "I don't think the exemptions would change our management approach."
In a way, Fort Lewis could serve as a model for those who say the current laws provide flexibility. Several years ago, Fort Lewis commanders wanted to use heavy smoke as part of training. But such smoke was in clear violation of Clean Air Act standards. After a year of negotiation and analysis, state officials issued a variance that allowed a less dense smoke to be used.
Steucke pointed out that 55,000 acres of the fort's 86,000 acres are considered critical habitat for the spotted owl, which has forced base officials to tailor training to that environment.
The Pentagon insists it needs the flexibility to prepare its forces in a time of war and formally asked for that power in legislation submitted this month. The laws get in the way of critical military training and should be relaxed during a time of war, officials said.
In explaining the request, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Raymond Dubois told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 6, "The impacts on readiness must be considered when applying environmental regulations to military-unique training and testing activities."
The idea isn't new. The Pentagon submitted a similar environmental request last year, but it was quickly dismissed because it came late in the legislative year.
But it has been a clear goal for senior military planners. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has pushed the initiative, testifying several times that it would simply "clarify environmental statutes which restrict access to, and sustainment of, training and test ranges essential for the readiness of our troops and the effectiveness of our weapons systems in the global war on terror."
Environmental groups and Democrats in Congress view the effort as a blatant attempt by one of the nation's biggest polluters to remove itself from laws that have worked well for decades.
Moreover, opponents insist that the laws as currently written provide ample flexibility for the military in times of crisis. The president or other senior government officials can request narrow waivers of the law.
"The laws have loads of doors the Department of Defense can walk through to do emergency training and other things for national security," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.
"But these are wholesale exemptions . . . that would gut our environmental laws," said Inslee, who added that he wanted to ensure that the military remain the best trained in the world.
Bill Arthur, the Sierra Club's Northwest regional director, agreed with critics. He called the Pentagon's request extreme and unnecessary. If put into place, Arthur said, it would result in a "lower baseline of overall environmental protection."
Like others, he is baffled because current law provides readymade exemptions that have always been granted in times of crisis.
"This has more to do with the Bush administration's philosophy of rolling back environmental protections than military need," he said.
Inslee and other critics point to a 2002 report by the General Accounting Office that concluded that training and readiness are not adversely affected by environmental laws.
That view was embraced this month by EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman who told a Senate committee, "I don't believe that there is a training mission anywhere in the country that is being held up or not taking place because of environmental protection regulation."
Environmental groups are also protesting.
"As part of the Bush administration's ongoing campaign to roll back the nation's environmental protections, the Pentagon is exploiting the impending war with Iraq and ongoing war on terrorism to take aim at an array of public health and environmental laws," the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council said in a call to arms for its members.
"Americans must guard against the Pentagon's unwarranted attempt to sacrifice an integral component of America's national character -- our natural heritage -- under the guise of national security," the group said.
Despite the success at Fort Lewis, Steucke concedes that not all bases are alike and exemptions could be more noticeable at some facilities.
And that worries Inslee. "I know that in time of war fear can replace common sense."
At Issue are Five Environmental Laws
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