The Defense Department is pressing Congress for exemptions from many of the nation's most important environmental laws, arguing that the restrictions seriously hamper military readiness and training after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
If the Pentagon prevails, many training and bombing exercises would be exempt from an array of laws governing endangered species, marine mammals, migratory birds, clean air and hazardous-waste cleanup.
A House Armed Services subcommittee on military readiness last week adopted two of the proposed exemptions, relating to endangered species and migratory birds, as part of a 2003 defense authorization bill. The full committee is likely to consider other changes when it begins action on the bill Wednesday, according to environmental groups and congressional sources.
Defense Department officials said yesterday the environmental laws have greatly inhibited training at military bases and bombing ranges and that the process for obtaining presidential exemptions is too slow and cumbersome for a government that is bracing for the possibility of renewed terrorist attacks.
"If we wait until a 9/11-type of event that really does create an imminent threat to the nation . . . to invoke those waivers, the troops that go into battle won't have the realistic training they need," said Ben Cohen, the Defense Department's deputy general counsel for environment and installations.
A recent federal court ruling that halted bombing exercises on Farallon de Medinilla, a Western Pacific island where migratory birds were being killed, could affect other ranges where training involves live firing and bombing, officials said.
The administration's call for broad environmental exemptions for the Pentagon has been strongly opposed by environmental groups, governors and state attorneys general, and public interest groups. The military is among the nation's largest polluters, and it manages 25 million acres of land that provide habitat for 300 species listed as threatened or endangered.
"This looks like one of the most dangerous things we're facing right now," said Gregory Wetstone of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It seems to be an effort to broadly allow the military to ignore our environmental laws despite the exemptions they already have."
Raymond DuBois, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, stressed yesterday that the proposed exemptions would apply to a "narrow, unique category of military activity" and would not affect other day-to-day operations, such as wastewater treatment, solid-waste disposal and construction. "We will continue to shoulder our [environmental] responsibility," he said.
Last week, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), chairman of the House military readiness subcommittee, said the Defense Department was "asking us to follow a reckless course" by waiting until the last minute to request changes without giving lawmakers "a reasonable period of time" to consider long-term environmental implications.
Hefley's subcommittee approved a provision to the defense authorization bill that would exempt critical habitats on military installations from restrictions under the Endangered Species Act, provided that a natural resources management plan was in place. He also offered language, which the panel approved, to amend the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to allow the Pentagon to kill migratory birds that interfere with military readiness operations. Under current law, the military can obtain permits to clear birds off a golf course or an airport runway, but not to remove them to make way for military exercises.
However, Hefley put off Pentagon requests that had drawn the sharpest criticism from environmentalists and wildlife advocates, including exemptions from the Clean Air Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and hazardous- and toxic-waste cleanup legislation.
For years, the military has been increasingly concerned about environmental "encroachments" -- conservation-based restrictions on how training bases and bombing ranges can be used, according to Pentagon officials. Now it is also facing opposition from conservationists fighting deployment of a revolutionary sonar system designed to detect new "quiet" submarines. The system can confuse or kill large whales and other noise-sensitive marine mammals.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company