Published on Tuesday, August 28, 2001 in the New York Times
Environmental Groups to File Suit Over Missile Defenses
by James Dao
WASHINGTON, Aug. 27 — Hoping to slow the Bush administration's missile defense program, several environmental groups plan to file a lawsuit on Tuesday asserting that the Pentagon's plans for a missile defense test range in the Pacific would violate federal environmental rules.
The suit, to be filed in United States District Court here, contends that the Pentagon must conduct a detailed analysis of the environmental impact of missile testing on Alaska, California, Hawaii and other places in the proposed test range.
If a federal judge orders the military to produce the impact statement, it would be a potentially serious setback to the administration's efforts to have an "emergency" antimissile system operating from Alaska by as early as 2004.
It might also complicate the administration's assertion that it must withdraw within months from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the 1972 pact with the Soviet Union that prohibits development of missile defense systems. Pentagon officials have argued that an aggressive new test schedule in the Pacific range would conflict with the treaty starting early next year.
"Obviously, the hope is that delay will lead to cancellation," said Melanie Duchin, an Anchorage activist with Greenpeace, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "That's what we always hope for in these suits."
Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, said the program had already produced a detailed environmental impact statement that analyzed the effects of missile defenses on parts of North Dakota and Alaska, including Fort Greely near Fairbanks. The Clinton administration had considered basing 100 missile interceptors at Fort Greely.
By contrast, the Bush administration has proposed building five missile silos at Fort Greely — initially for testing purposes, but eventually to be part of an operating missile defense system by as early as 2004, if a missile attack seems imminent.
"We did a complete E.I.S. for Greely for 100 interceptors," Colonel Lehner said. "So if we have just 5 interceptors, that would seem to be not an issue and covered by the past E.I.S."
Colonel Lehner said the Pentagon also intended to conduct an environmental assessment of plans to use a commercial launch site on Kodiak Island as part of the test range. That assessment would determine whether a more detailed environmental impact statement was needed.
But officials with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is spearheading the lawsuit, contend that previous environmental impact statements are no longer valid because the Bush administration has replaced the old program with a far more aggressive testing schedule.
"By its own admission, the administration has radically revised the nation's ballistic missile defense program, including expanding missile defense testing activities into ecologically sensitive areas in Alaska," said David E. Adelman, a lawyer for the council.
In addition to the council and Greenpeace, other plaintiffs in the suit include Physicians for Social Responsibility, Alaska Public Interest Research Group and an array of Alaskan environmental and arms control groups.
In court papers, the plaintiffs contend that the new test range could create environmental problems in several ways: by laying new fiber- optic lines across salmon-breeding streams, by leaving space debris from interception tests in low orbit, by emitting electromagnetic radiation from tracking radars and by using solvents and other explosive chemical compounds.
If the Pentagon fires test missiles from Fort Greely, missile debris could fall on populated areas in central Alaska. However, the Pentagon has said it intends to fire most of its test missiles from Kodiak, where the debris would fall into the ocean.
Christopher Paine, a senior researcher with the resources Defense Council, said the group planned to ask a federal judge to issue an injunction blocking construction on the new test range until an environmental impact statement is finished.
The Pentagon has awarded a $9 million contract for site preparation work at Fort Greely. That work, which could begin this week, will involve clearing trees and grading dirt. Construction of missile silos is not expected to begin until spring.
The Bush administration has said the new Pacific range will allow it to conduct tests in which target missiles fired from California and traveling at realistic speeds and trajectories are shot down with interceptors launched from Alaska or Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Current tests involve a more constricted range between California and Kwajalein.
Critics of the plan contend that the current testing range is adequate and that the administration wants to expand the range to Alaska solely to lay the foundations for an operating missile shield.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company