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Associated Press Newswires

Study: Marine Training Won't Hurt Panhandle Environment

April 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AP) - Marine Corps training at this base would have no significant influence on traffic, businesses, wetlands and threatened or endangered species as long as proper management techniques are used, a draft environmental study has concluded.

The Navy and Marine Corps plan to move live fire training to Eglin and other bases in the Southeast from Vieques Island in Puerto Rico. Protests after an errant bomb killed a civilian security guard on Vieques prompted the services to seek other sites for the training.

The Air Force Air Armament Center, which oversees this Florida Panhandle base, is expected to sign off on the analysis next week, Eglin environmental spokesman Mike Spaits said Tuesday.

That would clear the way for up to two Marine amphibious and expeditionary warfare exercises annually, each lasting 10 days. It would be December, however, before the first exercise could be held, said Maj. Dan McGuire, who is leading the Marine effort here.

The Navy already has used Eglin and the Gulf of Mexico for aircraft carrier battlegroup exercises including the live bomb drops on the base's weapons testing ranges.

The Marines would land on Eglin-owned beaches at Santa Rosa Island, cross Santa Rosa Sound in amphibious vehicles and hovercraft and come ashore on the mainland at Wynnhaven Beach, a civilian community.

Traffic would be stopped periodically at night for half-hour periods so tanks and other vehicles could cross highway U.S. 98 for access to Eglin's sprawling military reservation. The base is the nation's largest, covering 724 square miles in Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties.

A 30-day public comment period expired last week for the environemental study conducted by Science Applications International Corp., a defense consulting firm from nearby Shalimar. Spaits said he received only two comments, both by e-mail.

One man was worried about traffic congestion around Niceville from Marine vehicles, some carrying live ammunition. The study concluded that road closures there would be unlikely or last only five to 10 minutes if needed.

The study's results stunned South Walton Turtle Watch president Sharon Maxwell.

"I want to know how there could be no significant impact on the environment when they're shooting bullets and dropping bombs," she said. "You can't tell me that critters on the reservation won't be affected."

The Air Force has been dropping bombs and testing other weapons at Eglin since World War II. The Air Armament Center is responsible for developing and testing munitions such as the "smart" weapons used extensively in the war against Iraq.

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