The Pentagon is quietly seeking exemptions from some of America's main environmental laws, which would give the military free rein to dump spent munitions, pollute the air and poison endangered species at its bases without risk of liability for any damage.
The proposal, slipped into the fine print of the 2004 military budget last week, is enraging environmentalists and some senior figures on Capitol Hill, who say the Pentagon is taking shameless advantage of the 11 September attacks and the looming war against Iraq to wriggle out of its responsibilities to public health and the country's natural heritage.
"There is no justification whatsoever for the exemptions they are seeking. They do not even present examples of why they are seeking this exemption," John Walke, a clean air specialist with the National Resources Defense Council, said.
Among the laws the military is seeking to circumvent are the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, important pieces of legislation governing the clean-up of environmental disasters and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Navy sonars have been blamed for the deaths of whales found washed up on beaches.
The Pentagon argues that it needs the exemptions because environmental laws get in the way of training troops. That assessment is contradicted by a recent report from Congress's General Accounting Office, which saw no negative impact from environmental statutes on military readiness.
Environmentalists point out that the White House already has the authority to grant case-by-case exemptions where national security might be at stake something that has rarely happened. They also cite last year's Pentagon budget report estimating the military's liability for environmental degradation at about $28bn (£17bn). "This is not about military readiness," said Brock Evans, a former marine now with the Endangered Species Coalition. "There are alternatives to exempting themselves from environmental laws."
The Pentagon made a similar exemption proposal last year, only to see it shot down by the Senate, controlled by Democrats at the time.
The move appears to be controversial even within the Bush administration. Christine Todd Whitman, the White House's top environmental official, told a Senate committee recently: "I don't believe that there is a training mission anywhere in the country that is being held up or not taking place because of environmental protection regulation." And John Ashcroft, the ultra-conservative Attorney General, said protecting the environment was an important element of national security. "These laws do more than just protect the health and safety of our citizens," he said. "Compliance with and enforcement of these laws makes a real difference in our level of national preparedness."
The issue will be discussed today by two congressional subcommittees on armed services readiness. One leading Democratic congressman, John Dingell of Michigan, said the military had been trying for years to "get out from under" environmental laws. "But using the threat of 9/11 and al-Qa'ida to get unprecedented environmental immunity is despicable."
Pollution from the military has provoked regular environmental scandals from rocket fuel contaminating drinking water to reports of cancer clusters and other illnesses possibly caused by jet fuel emissions or pipelines carrying heavy-duty fuel beneath houses.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd