Whales and manatees could become collateral damage in the war against terror. So could humans in America if a combined attack by Pentagon and congressional Republicans wins the current battle for environmental law exemptions for the armed services.
A Senate committee has crafted a defense authorization bill that would exempt the military from Endangered Species Act mandates on any training range already covered by a natural resources protection plan approved by the Secretary of the Interior. But that's only the tip of a very large iceberg. The proposed legislation seeks blanket military exemptions from five environmental laws governing air pollution, toxic waste dumps and marine mammals as well as endangered species.
There are two basic reasons to defeat this plan. One is that it's unnecessary -- the law already allows the military to apply for case-by-case waivers of environmental laws if they compromise training. The other is that it's harmful. To Erie County residents still dealing with the aftereffects of World War II ordnance facilities and the Manhattan Project, the need for military environmental accountability ought to be obvious.
It's a pitched battle. Environmental groups quickly mounted an attack on the legislation, and Senate staffers fiercely counterattacked with a campaign they named "Operation End Extremism." In Congress, the Pentagon's concerns over realistic training are being draped in the patriotic bunting of war and shaded with the fears of terrorism as a way to easing environmental laws.
The exemption effort is an unwholesome one that ultimately amounts to an attack on public health. It also inappropriately exploits Americans' more immediate concerns for security and pride in a victorious military. It deserves defeat.
Supporters of this legislation most often cite problems at the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton in California. Marines there practice landings involving the full range of amphibious vehicles, but are restricted to 1,500 feet of a 17-mile beach because of concerns for shore birds and their nests. The military also faces environmental hassles on bombing and gunnery ranges, and a recent environmental lawsuit settlement restricted Navy low-range sonar experiments that disturb whales to "only" a million square miles of ocean.
But the military hasn't really made a persuasive case why it needs this bill. The waivers already allowed by law are rarely requested -- Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had to ask military commands to come up with specific examples to cite. Researchers from the General Accounting Office reported to Congress that armed services reports don't provide any evidence that military readiness has been compromised by environmental laws.
Balance that against the risk. As examples, unexploded Massachusetts Military Reservation munitions have contaminated drinking water in Cape Cod, and California officials called for a study of Pentagon missile-fuel manufacturing after potentially toxic levels of the chemical perchlorate were found in water wells and lettuce. And, it is worth noting, 131 Defense Department sites are on the Superfund National Priority List of toxic waste sites, more than 70 percent of the total.
That's why the proposed changes have drawn fire not only from environmentalists, but also from such organizations as the National League of Cities, the Environmental Council of the States and the National Association of Attorneys General. Governments don't want to be stuck for the cost of military cleanups.
Military preparedness is important. But a waiver system exists to balance environmental and training concerns. Those charged with defending the public from external threats ought not to simply override laws that are designed to protect the public from environmental ones.