While the nation goes to war, the Pentagon lobs bombs at environmental laws

  • NUCLEAR COWBOY: Major Kong tries to release the atomic bomb called "Dear John"

    From the movie Dr. Strangelove

The first time I saw the movie Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Stanley Kubrick’s satirical depiction of Cold War America, I was too young to fully understand it. I watched it a second time while in college during the Clinton years, and found the flick brilliant, even though it was campy and outdated.

Now, I can’t watch it a third time, because I’m afraid it’ll too closely resemble reality. After interviewing conservationists and attorneys about the military’s campaign to sidestep environmental laws, and then watching Congress quickstep to President Bush’s war drum on the news, I’ve started lying awake at night. I keep imagining Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld straddling a missile, tailing a flock of endangered cranes — his whoops mingled with theirs.

Of course, the Pentagon’s current assault on the environment is not quite this overt. But as the war in Iraq begins, the military’s campaign here at home is every bit as sinister as anything Kubrick dished out in Dr. Strangelove.

Since January, the Defense Department has been floating a proposal called the "Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative" around Washington, D.C. Amid words like "freedom," "armed conflict," and "morale," is language that would exempt the military from five federal laws: the Clean Air Act, the Superfund law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, parts of the Endangered Species Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates solid waste cleanup.

If passed, the new law would give the military free rein to destroy critical habitat for 300 endangered species on 25 million acres of federal land. The Navy would be allowed to "harass" protected marine mammals such as dolphins and whales. The Defense Department could shirk its cleanup duties on more than 100 Superfund sites, burn weapons and their chemical components in open pits, and leave communities on or adjacent to military installations susceptible to contaminated air and groundwater.

An exemption from Superfund, for example, would allow the Defense Department to manage and monitor cleanup of contaminated sites without oversight from the states or the Environmental Protection Agency, and entirely outside the public’s sphere of knowledge. Until, that is, contamination creeps off military land or into groundwater. Then, the state, tribe or private landowner would be responsible for the cleanup — and its cost.

While each of the five laws already has provisions that allow the military leeway, conservationists point out — and the Pentagon concedes — that none of these exemptions has ever been invoked. Apparently, though, if the military had to invoke case-by-case exemptions every time it wanted to kill a dolphin, burn munitions or backpedal on its cleanup plans, bad publicity and public outcry would surely ensue. Instead, it’s much easier to pass broad exemptions under the cover of war, then go about business quietly.

Encroaching on the military’s parade

All this begs the question: Does the Pentagon really need exemptions from laws that bind every other federal agency? After all, the soldiers who fought in two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, even the 1991 Gulf War, all successfully trained for combat here in the U.S. They were all ready when the time came to fight.

But according to the Pentagon, "encroachment" has hindered the military’s combat-training activities for more than 30 years. Up until two years ago, "encroachment" referred to the thickening jetsam of suburbia smacking up against the nation’s military installations. Then, in early 2001, Defense Department officials broadened the term’s definition to include environmental regulations.

At the request of Congress, the General Accounting Office looked into the Pentagon’s claims, visiting six military facilities, interviewing military personnel across the country, and sifting through five years’ worth of budget records. The report, released in June 2002, found no proof that environmental rules had affected military training.

Still, the Pentagon stepped up its campaign against the offending regulations. Last August, in an Associated Press story about Marine troops in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Edward Hanlon Jr., commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, explained that "Marines aren’t properly trained in foxhole training because environmental laws prevented digging on-base at Camp Pendleton, Calif."

But critics say the military is just capitalizing on a surge in patriotism in order to avoid the hassle of following environmental laws. They also point out that, ironically, the military now manages some of the most pristine stretches of habitat in the West. New Mexico’s 3,200 square-mile White Sands Missile Range, for instance, provides prime habitat for more than 300 species, including desert bighorn sheep, raptors, pronghorn, bats and mountain lions.

"(The Pentagon) brags on CNN that we’re the most ready military on Earth," says Bruce Eilerts, a former endangered species specialist with the U.S. Air Force. "Environmental regulations are not affecting readiness. We can do both. We should do both."

"We’re at a crossroads," says John Kostyack, senior counsel with the National Wildlife Federation. "Will the military abandon successful conservation on their lands?" Right now, the answer to that may be "yes." In a Nov. 24, 2002, memo, Gordon R. England, secretary of the Navy, ordered that all decisions involving endangered species be reviewed by two high-ranking Navy officials. England explained that he didn’t want "well-intentioned" personnel creating new habitat for endangered species on military bases. "My concern is that while individual concessions appear insignificant, over time we die from a thousand cuts. Additionally, some concessions could run counter to the legislative relief we are continuing to pursue with the Congress."

One law down, 10 to go

Last year, the Pentagon successfully lobbied Congress for a temporary exemption from the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act (HCN, 1/20/03: 84-year-old bird law no match for the military). Then it went after exemptions from the Endangered Species Act and wilderness restrictions at a military installation in Utah. The Pentagon failed there, so officials laid low until the Republican-dominated 108th Congress convened in early 2003, and patience paid off: The federal Office of Management and Budget has already approved the Pentagon’s proposal for exemptions from five laws and submitted it to Congress for inclusion in the Fiscal Year 2004 Defense Authorization Bill.

If all goes according to plan, the proposal will be introduced to Congress before May by the Armed Services Committee — a plan that irks ranking members of the House Committee on Resources. Representatives Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., have complained to the speaker of the House that any changes to environmental laws should be cleared by the Resources Committee, not the Armed Services Committee.

But complaints seem to fall on deaf ears. In mid-March, the Armed Service Committee’s Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support scheduled a hearing to air both sides of the debate. Days before that hearing, the panel of nonmilitary witnesses was "uninvited," and a second hearing was promised for later in the month. But no one is optimistic that the hearing will occur before the bill makes it onto the floor of Congress.

With the countdown to war ticking away, I spent days calling and e-mailing the Pentagon, trying to find someone who would talk with me about the "Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative." Those I did catch on the phone were harried, too busy to answer my questions about the environment. I could hear the frustration in their voices, and they must have thought I was a lunatic to be calling up the Pentagon, asking questions about the Endangered Species Act, while the rest of the nation was on "orange alert."

But just before this story went to press, as the U.S. was firing its first volleys of missiles into Baghdad, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility released another Defense Department memo. This one was dated March 7, 2003, from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. It ordered the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force to compile information that would help President Bush invoke national security exemptions to 10 environmental laws. One way or another, the military is determined to get its exemptions. In the event that Congress won’t pass them, the Defense Department has President Bush as its pinch-hitter.

So, for all the dolphins and cranes, I have just one bit of advice: "Duck and cover."

Laura Paskus is an assistant editor for High Country News.

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