The War at Home: Tanks vs. Tortoises

On the eve of war with Iraq, the Pentagon launched a less-publicized offensive in Washington. The Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative (RRPI) targets five basic environmental laws that have allegedly hindered military training. The Department of Defense (DOD) has asked Congress for exemptions from the Endangered Species, Clean Air, Superfund, Marine Mammal Protection, and Resource Conservation and Recovery acts (RCRA). The blanket exemptions are scheduled for review in Congress in May. A waiver of the  Migratory Bird Treaty Act was approved last year.
“The Bush administration is using the drumbeats of war to try to gut 30 years of public interest legislation,” says Daniel Patterson of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).
Patterson’s main concern is the Endangered Species Act (ESA). According to a 1996 report by DOD and The Nature Conservancy, more than 220 federally listed plant and animal species live on or migrate through military lands; that doesn’t include at-risk species that haven’t yet been listed. The DOD also has a disproportionate share of federal holdings in sensitive ecoregions, including California coastal chaparral. Some of the last refuges of such rare creatures as the red-cockaded woodpecker and the red wolf are on active military bases.
The waiver would exempt the military from designating critical habitat for endangered species on land it owns or controls. Patterson points out the troubling elasticity of that definition, which could include closed bases and overflight corridors. In California, the greatest impact would fall on south coast and desert military lands. Fort Irwin, a tank warfare training center 120 miles east of Bakersfield, is already pretty much trashed, Patterson says. But the Army wants to expand the base into the Superior Valley, the only known locale for the Lane Mountain milkvetch, an endangered plant, and home to one of the healthiest remaining populations of desert tortoises. Beyond easing that expansion, Patterson sees a danger that existing protection for the tortoise and other species could be removed.
In southern California, Edwards Air Force Base is home to the rare plant desert cymopterus, a candidate for ESA listing. The Marines’ Camp Pendleton, 45 miles northwest of San Diego, has  15 endangered or threatened species, including birds like the least Bell’s vireo, southwestern willow flycatcher, and California gnatcatcher, and one of the region’s last riparian communities; less than 5% of the base has any habitat  protection. The Marines have already chafed under environmental restrictions. “They’ve claimed ESA has prevented troops from digging foxholes,” says Patterson.
And that’s just ESA. The law governing marine mammals would be undermined by redefining “harassment,” expanding the allowable “take” of sea mammals, and allowing the Pentagon to bypass review for such activities as active sonar, which has been implicated in mass  whale strandings.
The DOD also wants to exclude unexploded munitions from the RCRA’s definition of “solid waste.” According to the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, a Washington, DC public interest group, this could affect 15 million acres where bombs and shells are leaching toxins like the explosive RDX (which can cause seizures) into soil and groundwater — a monumental problem at closed facilities such as Fort Ord, as well as at active bases. The exemptions would also excuse the military from cleaning up contamination from perchlorate, a rocket fuel constituent. In the Wall Street Journal, Peter Waldman reports that the RRPI “would grant the military greater training flexibility without having to worry about private or state suits over pollution,” and “shield the Pentagon from liability… even on bases that haven’t been used  for years.”
Environmental organizations, members of Congress, and even some administration figures question the need for such sweeping changes. Except for the Marine Mammal Protection Act, all the affected laws already allow exceptions in the interest of national security. But the exception process has never been invoked. This is about to change: In a March 7th memo, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz ordered the Army, Navy, and Air Force secretaries to request national security exemptions from ten environmental laws, including the Clean Air, Safe Drinking Water, and Noise Control acts. Wolfowitz claimed the ability to conduct military training and testing was threatened by “environmental regulation and litigation.”
But a General Accounting Office  study last year found that compliance with environmental laws had not impaired military readiness. Environmental Protection Agency head Christie Whitman testified to a Senate committee: “I don’t believe there is any training mission in the United States that is being held up by environmental regulations.” The National Park Service has also voiced concerns about impacts on marine mammals, migratory birds, and water quality.
The effects of these exemptions could be disastrous, says the NRDC’s Michael Jasny. “The Defense Department is the country’s largest polluter; it controls over 25 million acres of land in the United States. The laws that they want to change are the laws that keep our air and water clean, that protect us from cancer, that protect our most endangered species.”
Jasny also worries about the precedent these exemptions might set for industries who claim their work to be vital to national security interests. “The issue of oil development is one that proponents of drilling have already tried to haul in under the banner of patriotism and war. The [Department of Defense exemptions] only pave the way for broader incursions.”

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