By JOHN J. FIALKA, Staff Reporter
WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is asking Congress for exemptions to some of the nation's environmental laws, asserting that they are needed to improve military readiness and to make the training at military bases and bombing ranges more realistic.
In a statement released Tuesday, the Department of Defense said the legislative request has "great significance" for military capabilities and said the resulting changes would have either "neutral" or "strongly positive" effects on the environment.
Officials of state agencies, which enforce many federal environmental laws, and environmental groups opposed the exemptions, which the House Armed Services Committee may take up Thursday. "The federal government should act as an example to private industry. It should have to comply with the same laws that everybody else does," said Sandra Schubert, a lawyer for Earthjustice, an environmental group based here.
Ken Salazar, attorney general of Colorado and head of a national committee of state attorneys general, complained in a letter to the House committee that the exemptions could have "adverse impacts on human health and the environment." Currently, the Defense Department, he said, has a poorer record complying with the Clean Water Act than other federal agencies or private industry.
According to the Pentagon's statement, the Endangered Species Act and pending lawsuits brought under it by environmental groups to protect birds and animals could restrict training on substantial portions of the bases it uses for training operations, including 65% of Camp Pendleton, a Marine Base near San Diego, and 72% of Fort Lewis, an Army base on the coast of Washington state.
The Pentagon wants more flexibility under the Clean Air Act because new aircraft engines produce nitrogen oxides, a smog-causing pollutant. Restrictions about to be phased in, it stated, "could be a significant obstacle" to basing military jets in "any Southern California location."
James Van Ness, an associate general counsel for the Defense Department, said: "This goes to whether or not the young men and women we put in harms way are properly trained."
The measure also seeks relief from the strictures of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. A recent federal-court decision that halts bombing exercises on Farallon de Medinilla, an island in the Western Pacific, where birds were being killed, he said, could affect other ranges where live firing and bombing is used for training. "That would be a very unfortunate thing," he said.
While the legislation is being considered as part of this year's budget request by the House Armed Services Committee, it has provoked jurisdictional complaints because the environmental laws involved are overseen by at least two other committees. "DOD should concentrate on complying with the law and cleaning up the environment instead of seeking special preference to continue as the nation's greatest polluter," said Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The Pentagon wants hazardous waste to be redefined under state and federal Superfund laws to exclude the need to clean up munitions as long as they are on operational military bases. The exemption wouldn't apply to previously used bases.