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MARCH 12, 2003
9:47 AM
CONTACT:  Natural Resources Defense Council
Rob Perks: 202-289-6868
Above the Law? The Pentagon is Taking Aim at America's Public Health and Environmental Protections
March 12 - 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.

Although defeated in the last Congress, the Department of Defense (DoD) has unveiled its latest legislative proposal, the "Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative," which seeks immunity from five fundamental federal laws: the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act; Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (Superfund law); Clean Air Act; Marine Mammal Protection Act; and Endangered Species Act. Despite contrary evidence, the Pentagon claims that the laws regulating hazardous waste, toxic cleanup and air quality -- as well as those protecting wildlife habitat, migratory birds, whales and other marine mammals -- hinder military readiness.

That certainly wasn't the case under the first Bush administration during the Persian Gulf War. Shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney told an assembly of military planners and environmentalists, "Defense and the environment is not an either-or proposition. To choose between them is impossible in this real world of serious defense threats and genuine environmental concerns. The real choice is whether we are going to build a new environmental ethic into the daily business of defense."1

A decade later, the Pentagon's proposed legislation begs the question: Should national defense come at the expense of what the military is supposed to be defending? And if so, wouldn't other federal agencies -- not to mention industries -- argue for their own exemptions too? Our answer: No government agency should be above the law -- especially the laws that protect America's air and water, public health, and endangered wildlife.

Why We Fight

We do not question the importance of training and readiness for our fighting forces, but sweeping exemptions from environmental laws are not necessary to ensure America's military might. Success stories abound to show how the military has found reasonable solutions and pursued training in compliance with environmental laws. Moreover, the statutes now under fire already provide the flexibility needed to balance environmental protection and military readiness by allowing exemptions on a case-by-case basis in the interest of national security.

According to a briefing presented to the deputy secretary of defense by the department's Senior Readiness Oversight Council last December: "National security clauses exist in many of this nation's environmental statutes that would allow senior officials…to exclude DoD from certain provisions…under certain conditions. To date DoD has not used such exemptions to any extent to address encroachment concerns...."2

The Pentagon now wants to abandon its commitment to environmental stewardship even though it has yet to show that environmental laws hamper military readiness. Last June, the General Accounting Office (GAO) said the DoD has failed to produce any evidence showing that environmental laws or other "encroachments" have significantly affected military readiness.3 And Christie Todd Whitman, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, recently testified before the Senate that she has "been working very closely with the Department of Defense and I don't believe that there is a training mission anywhere in the county that is being held up or not taking place because of environmental protection regulation."4

The National Park Service recently warned that the changes being sought "would cause substantial degradation of natural resources."5 It's also worth noting that the Pentagon's proposal contradicts the principle of the Federal Facilities Compliance Act -- passed nearly unanimously in 1992 -- by unnecessarily exempting the DoD from federal laws at the expense of public health, public lands, air, water and wildlife. Moreover, if the exemptions were granted, taxpayers and state governments would bear the burden of cleanup costs and face public health risks from toxic contamination resulting from military operations. It's no wonder that state-level opposition was fierce when DoD proposed similar legislation in Congress last year.


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