WASHINGTON, DC, April 25, 2002 (ENS) - In a hearing today before a House subcommittee, Defense department officials argued that the U.S. military needs blanket exemptions from environmental laws for almost all military activities in order to protect national security. Conservation groups lashed back in a press conference this afternoon, calling the proposal "unacceptable" and warning that the military is asking for carte blanche to pollute.
More than 20 of the nation's leading conservation groups sent a letter to Congress today urging lawmakers to oppose proposed legislation that would allow the Department of Defense (DoD) to ignore certain environmental laws. The groups oppose amendments to the defense funding bill, which they say contains "broad sweeping exemptions ... [that] would likely result in irreparable harm to public health and the environment."
The DoD is seeking exemptions from some of the nation's most important environmental statutes, including the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Superfund law, among others.
"The American people have long supported these important environmental and public health laws," the groups wrote in their letter to Congress. "While we support U.S. military efforts to prepare for military action, such as efforts to protect national security, additional exemptions are not necessary to accomplish this goal."
"Many of these laws already have specific provisions that allow requests by the Department of Defense for waivers in the interest of national security," the groups continue. "We firmly believe no government should be above the law including the laws that protect the air and water in and around our military facilities, the health of the people who live on bases and nearby, and America's wildlife and public lands," the groups state in their letter.
The amendments offered by the DoD could prevent the enforcement of most environmental statutes on military bases. The exemptions from hazardous waste statutes, for example, would change the definition of hazardous waste to exclude munitions and their exploded parts.
In addition, the military would not be required to clean up contamination on a base, or stop its migration, until someone documented that the pollution had moved beyond the boundaries of a military site. That could allow extensive pollution of underground drinking water aquifers, environmental groups warn.
Even then, the proposed exemptions are "so broad that it is hard to predict how it could be interpreted," said Aimee Houghton, associate director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight.
According to the groups, changes allowing military exemptions were proposed by the Department of Defense just last Friday, allow little time for the House Subcommittee on Military Readiness to consider the proposed amendments.
"Because the language only came in on Friday, it left little room for an open and inclusive dialogue on these proposals," said Houghton. "And even today, the Defense Department couldn't make a good case for the amendments."
On March 14, the subcommittee held a hearing to solicit input from the DoD and various federal regulatory agencies regarding the environmental restrictions facing the military. Many public interest groups, including the National Governors' Association, the National Association of Attorneys General, and the National Conference of State Legislatures requested and were denied the opportunity to testify at the March hearing.
Conservation groups say they support a process in which military representatives and other parties can work together to develop creative and collaborative solutions to potential environmental problems at military installations, or from military training.
The groups charge that the legislation reviewed today could result in toxic contamination of air and water, destruction of endangered species critical habitat, threats to migratory birds and their nests, and harm to marine mammals. The groups claim that this laundry list of exemptions is both damaging and entirely unnecessary.
"Our existing laws already provide the proper balance between military readiness and environmental protection," today's letter to Congress concludes. "Issues need to be addressed under our current laws."
Military officials and their supporters argue that the exemptions are needed in order for the military to properly protect the nation.
"From my first day as chairman of the Military Readiness Subcommittee, I have heard one consistent theme from both the top officials at the Pentagon as well as the men and women in uniform whom I have met from military installations throughout the country," said Joel Hefley, the Colorado Republican who heads the subcommittee, in prepared remarks before the hearing. "The ability of the Department of Defense to fulfill its primary mission to safeguard national security has been dramatically challenged - and in some instances diminished - due to its obligations to satisfy several important federal environmental laws."
"The land, waters and air space in which the Department can train its soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have been restricted or lost due to the presence of endangered species, complaints about noise, urban encroachment and so forth," Hefley added.
Environmental experts at today's press conference noted that there has never been a case where the Clean Air Act, the Superfund law, or any of a myriad of other environmental statutes have kept the military from training.
At a press conference this afternoon, Brock Evans, executive director of Endangered Species Coalition and a former Marine, said that while conservation groups are sympathetic to the military's concerns, and eager to help solve specific problems, "blanket exemptions are very wrong."
"At a point in time when the military services have the highest standing in the public mind since World War II, it is unfortunate that the military is choosing now to seek exemptions from the nation's most important environmental laws," Evans said.
Today, the subcommittee considered giving the military exemptions from the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In a statement released Tuesday, the Pentagon said that lawsuits brought under the Endangered Species Act could potentially restrict military training on several bases, including California's Camp Pendleton and Washington's Fort Lewis.
A lawsuit filed under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act recently halted live fire bombing exercises on Farallon de Medinilla, a Pacific island where thousands of sea birds nest.
Sandra Schubert, legislative counsel at Earthjustice, said the Defense Department "is not able to come up with a single example where the Clean Air Act has hindered, either as a practical matter or in theory," military training activities. But the Pentagon warns that strict new emissions limits under the Clean Air Act could put many military jets in violation of air pollution regulations.
The subcommittee declined today to consider the other exemptions that the DoD is seeking, noting that the DoD has not made a strong enough case to include those exemptions.
"Given the time that the Department has given the Subcommittee to consider these significant adjustments to existing environmental statues, it would not be responsible for this Subcommittee to address these changes, at this time," Helfey said.
Additional exemptions could be added during the markup by the full Armed Services committee, or on the House floor.