Military Readiness vs. the Environment ; Environmental Groups and Local Communities Want Bases to Conform to Environmental Standards, Such as the Clean Water Act

Article excerpt

Washington

Ever since the Romans sowed salt on Carthaginian farm fields during the third Punic War, right up until the destruction of Kuwaiti oil wells by Iraq during the Gulf War, the environment has been both a strategic element and a victim of warfare.

But it's only been in recent decades that the US military has had to face the enormous expense and political challenge of becoming "greener." Today, that challenge is growing.

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, major national environmental groups have muted their criticisms of the Bush administration.

From Alaska to Puerto Rico, however, the armed services are under increasing pressure to consider the environmental impact of their operations.

Local communities - typically thought of as supportive of nearby military bases - are asking why military units should be exempt from federal laws like the Clean Water Act. Minority and native groups, which often live closest to military facilities, see the issue as one of "environmental justice."

Environmental activists note that wide-open bases (particularly in the West) are becoming prime habitat for endangered species, as urban sprawl crowds out other areas.

Some recent examples: At the prodding of local officials, Congress's General Accounting Office (GAO) is investigating World War I-era chemical munitions buried just outside Washington, D.C. County officials in northern California just denied the Army's request for an exemption to air-pollution laws so that it could burn old bombs and rockets. A coalition of environmental groups is taking legal steps to block Bush administration plans to deploy antimissile missiles near Fairbanks, Alaska.

The Defense Department is faced with cleaning up the contamination from decaying ordnance, mothballed warships, fuels, solvents, and other pollutants left over from the wars of the 20th century. Most of this is in this country, but some is overseas as well, including 19 million gallons of the deadly herbicide Agent Orange sprayed on the jungles of Vietnam, which the US is now helping to clean up.

Ironically, because other kinds of development were prohibited on (and sometimes near) military bases and Energy Department weapons plants, such land has become increasingly valuable habitat for endangered species.

For example, the Hanford Reach portion of the Columbia River in central Washington State, which flows through a highly secure area where the radioactive material for nuclear weapons was manufactured, is one of the last untrammeled spawning areas for salmon.

Protecting wildlife

The Pentagon is working hard on such issues, spending more than $5 billion a year on its "environmental security program." Meanwhile, it's having to adjust its training operations to take account of things like the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker at Fort Bragg, N.C. In some cases, the services are working with the Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups to protect wildlife habitat.

But that's not enough for some critics. The Maine-based Military Toxics Project recently reported that "military exemptions from laws and lax enforcement by regulatory agencies have produced over 27,000 toxic hot spots on 8,500 military properties. …