With our soldiers' brilliant victory in Iraq,
we can take comfort that our military is the best-trained, best-equipped fighting force in the world. But the Pentagon is
mounting a sneak attack against America's health and safety on the pretext that federal environmental rules have impeded military
readiness. This year's defense authorization bill has proposed to exempt the military from laws that protect America's air,
water and endangered species, that regulate toxic waste and the cleanup of Superfund sites.
The federal government is America's biggest
polluter and the Department of Defense is the government's worst offender. According to the Environmental Protection Agency,
unexploded ordnance waste can be found on 16,000 military ranges across the U.S. and more than half may contain biological
or chemical weapons. In total, the Pentagon is responsible for more than 21,000 potentially contaminated sites and, according
to the EPA, the military may have poisoned as much as 40 million acres, a little larger than Florida. That result might be
considered an act of war if committed by a foreign power.
EPA documents describe a martial assault
on America's landscapes and citizens by Pentagon officials who consistently violate federal and military laws with sloppy
cleanups and poor or non-existent record keeping. The Pentagon also habitually refuses to obtain permits for prohibited activities.
Recalcitrant officers charged with remedying the resulting mess generally decline to investigate off-site contamination and
routinely take "ill-advised shortcuts to limit costs," said an EPA report.
The risks to those living on or near military
installations can hardly be overstated. Twenty million Americans in 43 states are drinking water poisoned by perchlorate,
a cancer-causing chemical used by the military in missile fuel, reports the Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center
at Wheeling Jesuit University.
The experience at Cape Cod, Mass., is typical.
Unregulated pollution at Massachusetts Military Reservation has contaminated the only drinking water aquifer for the Cape's
200,000 year-round residents and 520,000 summer visitors. Cancer rates there are dramatically higher than the state average.
Malingering Pentagon officials have spent decades dodging the responsibility to clean up their mess. The defense authorization
bill will let them off the hook altogether.
The Pentagon has not offered any evidence
that federal environmental laws have hindered military preparedness. EPA Administrator Christie Whitman recently told Congress
that she didn'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."
Moreover, the statutes now under fire already
provide case-by-case exemptions whenever a national security interest is at stake. Even as it seeks to carve out huge new
loopholes in our environmental laws, the Pentagon admits that it has never even tried to use the broad national security waivers
it already has.
The Pentagon's proposal strips the EPA and
states of their authority to protect public health by forcing the military facilities to clean up toxic contamination. Massive
cleanup costs would fall on state governments and local communities--most of which are facing severe budget crises.
The Defense Department's arguments for new
exemptions in our environmental laws do not pass muster. For example, Pentagon officials maintain that training exercises
are banned on more than half of Camp Pendleton in California to protect endangered species habitat. In reality, wildlife protections
limit training on less than 4 percent of that military base, according to Natural Resources Defense Council calculations.
Pentagon officials also are trying to evade laws that protect marine life, claiming that they hamper the Navy's ability to
conduct exercises at sea. While sonar testing and bombing can harm whales, dolphins and other marine mammals, federal wildlife
officials have never denied the military a permit to conduct its operations.
President Bush campaigned on a promise to
require federal agencies to fully comply with environmental standards and to hold agencies accountable for any violations.
In other words, no government agency should be above the law. The president was absolutely right to make that pledge in April
2000, and he should stand by his words as commander in chief.
National defense does not have to come at
the expense of the very values that the military is entrusted to defend.
© 2003, Chicago Tribune