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Reversing Field On Environmental Rules


30 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

The ability to take advantage of changing conditions is usually a good trait, but not so with the Defense Department's revised plans to seek exemptions from laws protecting the environment. In a draft report, the Pentagon proposes to change a 1996 directive that committed it to reducing pollution, protecting the environment and minimizing the risk of military activities to people's health.

A softer approach

The proposed revision is significant. It replaces the Pentagon pledge to ''display environmental-security leadership'' in military activities worldwide with an emphasis on sustaining the ''national defense mission.'' The practical effect of the change would mean that U.S. military activities would be exempt from provisions of the Clean Air Act and from certain federal laws that regulate the disposal of toxic wastes.

Under the Bush administration's softer approach to enforcing environmental rules, the department already has gotten exemptions from the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Pentagon officials believe that some of the rules are costly and burdensome. They also fear that, in some situations, reliance on environmental rules could create room for lawsuits that could block military activities, including munitions testing and live-fire training exercises.

Before adopting the revisions, Pentagon officials should know that failure to adhere to environmental standards can be equally as expensive and burdensome, if not more so.

Consider the situation in Vieques, Puerto Rico, for example. The U.S. Navy and other services used portions of the island for drug training, military exercises and a bombing range with live ordnance for more than 60 years. Residents routinely complained over the years about illnesses they believed were associated with the bombings, including higher cancer rates than residents of mainland Puerto Rico. They worried about the military's failure to clean up contaminants on the island and in the ocean from the bombings. Public attention was galvanized over the issue in 1999 after a security guard was accidentally killed during a military live-fire operation. Months of sustained protests led eventually to the military abandoning Vieques.

Abiding by the rules

In this case, the military paid the ultimate price for years of neglect of residents' concerns and for not paying enough attention to the impact of its operations on environmental concerns. Abandoning its commitment to environmental laws could put the military in an adversarial relationship, similar to Vieques, with neighboring residents in many parts of the 28 million acres of land used for military training and exercises around the country. On the other hand, abiding by the rules and its 1996 pledge would cast the military as a partner in efforts to clean up the environment.

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