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Pentagon Seeks Exemption From Environmental Laws
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<-- Return To Right to Know or Left to Wonder?

Source: NY Times.

March 30, 2002

Pentagon Seeks Exemption From Environmental Laws

By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE

WASHINGTON, March 29 Concerned that several environmental laws are interfering with the military's ability to train soldiers and develop weapons, the Pentagon is seeking a Congressional exemption from an array of measures that have protected endangered species and their habitats for years.

A draft of the exemption bill, circulating in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, seeks exemptions on national security grounds for bombing ranges, air bases and training grounds from sections of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Noise Control Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The Defense Department controls about 25 million acres for training grounds, about 90 percent of which is undeveloped buffer. It spends about $4 billion a year to comply with environmental laws, money that Pentagon officials say could be better spent preparing the military for combat, especially in light of the Sept. 11 attacks.

For example, the Navy spends $2.4 million per year to protect a bird called the loggerhead shrike, an endangered species on San Clemente Island, off California. It also closes its bombing range there four days a week during the shrike's breeding season, and since the Navy has been doing that, the shrike population has grown to 160 birds, from 13.

"This environmental success has necessitated reducing one of the two firing ranges in size by 90 percent and the other by 50 percent" at certain times, Representative Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican who is chairman of the subcommittee on military readiness, said recently at hearings on the subject.

But, Mr. Hefley wondered, where will it end? "How many shrikes must be reintroduced into the wild and maintained on San Clemente Island before we can say that the Navy can once again devote its complete attention and dollars to its primary mission of preparing our military forces to ensure national security?" he asked.

The legislation that the Pentagon is preparing, which would be introduced as part of the defense spending bill after the Easter recess, would protect the military from lawsuits for violating rules like the ones protecting the shrike, officials said.

A draft of the bill says, "Federal departments and agencies shall not place the conservation of public lands, or the preservation or recovery of endangered, threatened or other protected species found on military lands, above the need to ensure that soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines receive the greatest possible preparation for, and protection from, the hazards and rigor of combat through realistic training on military lands and in military airspace."

Environmental organizations are beginning to rally in opposition.

"The forces are gathering," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit group representing civil servants who work on military bases and in environmental agencies. "This is seen as a major threat, and there's a growing cast of thousands meeting next week to plan to counter it."

If the environmental laws are breached, Mr. Ruch said, the military will be free to contaminate public drinking water with munitions, discharge air pollutants in bombings and exceed noise limits as well as test weapons that could harm whales and other marine life.

He said that few members of Congress were aware of the proposal, but he noted Congress's overwhelming support for the administration's efforts to respond to terrorism.

"Sept. 11 has given them a lot more political currency to do a broad-brush kind of thing," he said.

In his hearings two weeks ago, Mr. Hefley highlighted protections that some people might easily consider extreme and trivial when weighed against military needs.

He said that at Fort Hood, Tex., one of the Army's top training installations, 84 percent of the 200,000 acres devoted to training were subject to limits to protect two endangered species and cultural artifacts.

At Camp Pendleton, Calif., protections of tidal estuaries and rare plants and of mud puddles housing two species of microscopic shrimp produce what he called "an impossibly truncated mishmash of the land available for combat training."

Paul W. Mayberry, deputy under secretary of defense, told the subcommittee, "Both the room to maneuver and the ability to fire live ordnance are essential."

In Kosovo, it was evident that soldiers without live ordnance training were less effective than those with such training, Mr. Mayberry said.

Environmental laws prohibit or restrict flights over certain public lands and restrict the landing of amphibious craft on beaches. Simulated exercises are no substitute, he said, adding, "Our troops' first exposure to live fire cannot come as they land on a hostile beach in combat."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has authority to invoke exemptions from environmental laws, but he has not done so.

A spokeswoman for the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Cynthia Colin, would not comment on any aspect of the proposed legislation, except to say that discussion with other agencies on how to respond to the environmental limitations were under way.

In a statement, Colonel Colin said, "We are always concerned by anything that might adversely impact the training needed to protect our military people, our nation and our way of life."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company | Privacy Information

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