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The San Diego Union-Tribune

Military Blamed For Environmental Harm

by Cheryl Clark

November 12, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The San Diego Union-Tribune. All Rights Reserved.

The military has polluted American Indian tribal lands, brought nuclear carriers to San Diego Bay, dumped toxic chemicals into Alaskan fishing waters and left thousands of pieces of unexploded ordnance in Maryland.

Yet, critics said yesterday, the military is not bound by many state and federal environmental mitigation laws that apply to corporations and everyone else.

Those were the allegations from about 25 environmental activists who came here yesterday -- from Puerto Rico to Alaska -- to tell Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, how activities in the name of national defense have damaged their land, their sources of income and their health.

"As it turns out, the one most capable of doing damage to the environment is the one not subject to these laws," Filner said.

The two-hour hearing at a Shelter Island hotel room was called by Filner to get comments on legislation he plans to introduce that would hold U.S. defense-related agencies accountable to environmental laws from which they are now exempt.

Other sponsors of yesterday's session included San Diego's Military Toxics Project, the Environmental Health Coalition and the Peace Resource Center.

Speakers told of practice bombing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques , inordinately high birth defects near a Memphis Army Depot, spills of fuel and asbestos and heavy metals near St. Lawrence Island in Alaska and unexploded ordnance and mysterious respiratory, neurological disorders among residents near Texas' Kelly Air Force Base.

Filner's legislation is in draft form only, but he said he is committed to increasing civilian regulatory authority over military activities whenever construction, wetlands, chemical or radioactive waste or even the location of helicopter routes might be at issue.

"For every one of these things, it turns out the military is not subject to environmental laws. And, if they are, they don't do what they're supposed to do, or they self-certify that they did," Filner said.

He added that in many cases it is veterans and military personnel who are hurt by environmentally irresponsible military activities that would not pass civilian legal muster. "In many ways," he said, "what this is is a veterans protection act."

A San Diego Navy spokesman, Capt. Gregg Hartung, said the Navy "tries very hard to comply with all environmental codes that we're required to. We work closely with the Coastal Commission. We live here. too, and having a clean bay is in our interest as well."

Attempts to reach Department of Defense representatives were unsuccessful yesterday.

Pedro Nava, a member of the California Coastal Commission from Santa Barbara, also attended the hearing. He argued that environmental regulations require expensive paperwork for an auto body shop or a dry cleaner, but nothing for a military project that can impact air, water and land in much greater ways.

"We don't want the military poisoning the very people they're supposed to be protecting, so we should have a voice about things done in our name," said Patricia McCoy, a city councilwoman from Imperial Beach.

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