Published on Saturday, October 30, 2004 by the Daily Camera
Free Ride for Military Polluters
by Chris Brauchli
"There is nothing in this world constant, but inconstancy."
Catchy names make bad policy appealing and no other president in recent memory has been as constant a friend to catchy names and bad policy as George W. Bush. His habit of attaching cute names to staff and bad policy has been one of the hallmarks of his administration. His monikers for bad policy have run the gamut from "Clear Skies Initiatives," a program designed to make the sky and those living under it feel good about increased pollution, to the Healthy Forest Initiative which pleases the timber industry but frightens the trees. Not all bad policies get cute names. One nameless bad policy pertaining to military bases was recently described in USA Today.
When George Bush was running for president in 2000, he promised that the military would be forced to "comply with environmental laws by which all of us must live." What he neglected to do was define the word "comply." Thanks to research done by USA Today's Peter Eisler, we have now learned that the meaning of "comply" for Mr. Bush is excusing the military from the kinds of environmental cleanups to which other polluters are subject and shifting responsibility for environmental cleanup from the government to the communities in which the polluted military sites are located.
According to Mr. Eisler, 29 million people live within 10 miles of a military site destined for cleanup under the Superfund program. Of the 1,240 heavily polluted sites, the Department of Defense is responsible for 124 of them. It has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid cleaning up its own mess, with the all-too-willing assistance of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Between 1997 and 2000 the EPA was averaging 117 inspections of military sites each year, a number that since 2000 has dropped to 87. Between 1998 and 2000 it averaged 24 enforcement actions a year compared with 18 per year from 2001 to 2003. Fines imposed on the military dropped from an average of $1 .7 million to $619,089. The amount spent on cleanups of polluted bases dropped from $2.1 billion a year to $1.68 billion. Mr. Bush proposed cuts in the Pentagon's cleanup budget for each of the past three years, proposals that flew in the face of campaign promises and were ultimately blocked by Congress. The administration says it is not intentionally trying to weaken environmental oversight or its commitment to cleanup. It did not explain what happened in Alaska, however, where, in 2003, the army was fighting a $16 million fine imposed by the EPA for air pollution from coal-fired power plants in Alaska. After a federal judge said that the military should be fined just the same as any other entity violating the laws the army threatened to appeal and in response the EPA settled for $600,000 instead of $16 million.
According to Sylvia Lowrance, the former top enforcement official at the EPA, the Bush administration has backed off taking strong enforcement actions against the defense department, actions that had been repeatedly taken during the preceding 20 years. Since 2002, at the urging of the White House, Congress has granted exemptions to the military that permit it to train on land controlled by the military that provides wildlife habitat protected by the Endangered Species Act and permitted it to conduct sea exercises using equipment that may harm animals covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The military still wants additional exemptions pertaining to hazardous-waste disposal, hazardous-waste cleanups and air pollution, exemptions Republican leaders in Congress are determined to push through.
The administration's lax approach to enforcement is outdone only by its efforts in the legislative arena. It wants Congress to exempt millions of acres of military land from parts of the Clean Air Act and two federal laws pertaining to hazardous-waste disposal and cleanup. Thirty-nine state attorneys general oppose the proposals. The top environmental officers of almost every state oppose the proposal. The EPA sent a memo to the White House in 2003 saying that the proposals "could interfere with the ability of states to enforce air pollution and drinking water (rules) that protect public health." Unimpressed, Mr. Bush continues to press the proposals. The EPA, a tool of the administration, had no choice but to go along with it.
The only thing Mr. Bush's policies with respect to the environment and the military lack is a catchy name. Here's a suggestion: "Another good reason to vote for John Kerry."
Christopher Brauchli is a Boulder lawyer and and writes a weekly column for the Knight Ridder news service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2004, The Daily Camera