Critics Attack Plan To Put Military Above the Law
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, May 1, 2003 (ENS) - Congressional Democrats held a press briefing on Capitol Hill today to rally opposition against the Bush administration's proposal to exempt the U.S. military from five major environmental laws. The administration says the laws are compromising the military's training and readiness, but a growing coalition of Democrats, environmentalists, state officials and public health groups believe the proposal is unnecessary and ill conceived.
The Bush administration has "failed miserably to provide any basis for these exemptions," Representative Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, told reporters at today's briefing.
"This proposal is a classic example of a solution in search of a problem," Rahall said.
The Bush administration is seeking exemptions from federal laws governing hazardous waste, clean air, marine mammal protection and endangered species.
These laws are: the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which regulates hazardous waste; the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, often referred to as the Superfund statute; the Clean Air Act; the Endangered Species Act; and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Associations representing state attorney generals, state environmental agencies, state pollution control officials as well as the National League of Cities and municipal water organizations, have all issued statements strongly opposing the proposed exemptions.
There is further evidence that the American public opposes exempting the military from environmental laws - a recent poll by Zogby International finds more than four out of five likely voters say that government agencies should have to follow the same environmental and public health laws as everyone else.
The poll finds that two out of three Republicans and "self-described conservatives" oppose exempting the military from environmental laws.
The administration is using the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism as "an excuse and an opportunity to ram these exemptions through Congress," said Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat.
"Never has a proposal had more audacity or less merit," Dingell told reporters.
The administration and its allies are trying to "sneak" the bill through Congress, Dingell said, because there is ample documentation that the military does not need the proposed exemptions.
In addition, there are some incidents when specific training exercises have been curtailed due to environmental laws, but the report finds readiness has not been affected.
And EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, in testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in February, said she was unaware of "a training mission anywhere in the country" that had been delayed or cancelled because of environmental regulations.
"The Department of Defense has decided that the environmental laws that protect all of us are just too inconvenient," said Senator Jim Jeffords, a Vermont Independent. "They want Congress to let them off the hook. We will not let that happen."
Each of the laws in question already has a provision to allow exemptions on a case by case basis in the interest of national security, but Pentagon officials have testified that the current exemption provisions in each statute take too long to enact and can be subjected to lawsuits.
Rahall, who just returned from visiting American troops and military leaders in Qatar, said that after a "two hour discussion with General Tommy Franks," the top U.S. commander in Iraq, "I see no reason for these exemptions."
"Laws should not be compromised when the military can clearly protect out country while following them," added Representative Tom Allen, a Maine Democrat.
In the memo Wolfowitz wrote, "in the vast majority of cases, we have demonstrated that we are able both to comply with environmental requirements and to conduct necessary military training and testing."
The growing concern over the proposed exemptions reflects the potential impact they could have on the nation's environment and public health, Dingell said.
The U.S. military is a leading producer of hazardous waste and is the nation's biggest polluter. Its clean up program includes some 28,000 currently or formerly contaminated sites in the United States and abroad, with 3,912 contaminated sites in California alone.
State officials have voiced concerns that broad exemption from RCRA and the Superfund statute would shift clean up and disposal costs to state governments, who are currently in their worst fiscal crisis in U.S. history.
Proposed exemptions from the Clean Air Act would require states to obtain increased emissions cuts from other sources within their borders to meet clean air standards.
The exemption would remove the military from complying with clean air standards by broadening the definition of training to include activities such as driving vehicles on military bases and spraying pesticides. It lifts the requirement that military activities do not worsen air quality.
Removing the military's obligation to meet the standards of the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act would undermine three decades of critical conservation work, added Rahall, and the military has not "made a compelling case for these exemptions."
Rahall said a new bill has been introduced that would grant the military exemptions from these two laws that are beyond even those asked for by the Bush administration.
The bill - the "National Security Readiness Act" - authored by California Representative Elton Gallegly, a Republican, will be debated by the House Resources Committee next Tuesday.
The Bush administration's proposal, which has been tucked into the 2004 military budget, is expected to be discussed by the Senate Armed Services, House Armed Services and House Resources Committees next week.
Although he is confident momentum is growing against the proposal, Dingell says that the administration and its allies are determined to see these exemptions pass.
"They will attempt to ram this through in the most sneaky and dishonest fashion," Dingell said. "Just wait and see."