Being All It Can Be: A Solution to Improve the Department of Defense's Overseas Environmental Policy

By Laporte, Margot | Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Being All It Can Be: A Solution to Improve the Department of Defense's Overseas Environmental Policy


Laporte, Margot, Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum


I. INTRODUCTION

The environmental regulation of overseas military bases and operations should be an important component of the United States' foreign and national security policies. The Department of Defense (DoD) recognized over ten years ago that "America's national interests are inextricably linked with the quality of the earth's environment, and that threats to the environmental quality affect broad national economic and security interests...." (1) Environmental degradation, for instance, has been linked to destabilizing forces around the world, including "'poverty, disease, and suffering.'" (2) Global environmental issues, including deforestation, oceanic degradation, biodiversity loss, and chemical pollutants threaten the health and security of U.S. citizens and interests abroad. (3) Implementing environmental regulations overseas would thus further national security and foreign policy interests by promoting stabilizing policies, international cooperation, and goodwill.

These considerations have important practical consequences for the DoD's development and implementation of overseas environmental policies. First, environmental regulations at overseas military bases and during operations protect the national security interests of all U.S. citizens. Of particular importance, regulations protect U.S. soldiers stationed overseas from environmental harms. Not only do these soldiers deserve the same level of environmental protection afforded soldiers on domestic bases, but those whose health is adversely affected by environmental conditions overseas may have diminished capacity to protect national security interests. Second, foreign nations, in response to U.S. policies that aim to respect and protect their natural resources, may provide the United States increased access to overseas bases. (4) Finally, acting in an environmentally responsible manner may improve the United States' image and facilitate relations with foreign nations. (5)

The DoD's current overseas environmental policies are inadequate to effectively regulate the environmental consequences of overseas military bases and operations. The DoD, for instance, has * implemented discrete policies concerning environmental assessment, compliance, pollution prevention, and remediation that fail to provide a coherent roadmap for environmental regulation overseas. Furthermore, the DoD affords commanders a tremendous amount of discretion in the implementation of these policies and provides for a number of exemptions through which commanders may avoid compliance.

The DoD's failure to implement a coherent and enforceable set of environmental policies has resulted in very real environmental harms overseas. The United States maintained 823 sites in 39 countries in FY 2007 (6) and has been involved in a number of overseas operations, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result of the DoD's failure to implement environmental policies that adequately regulate overseas military bases, U.S. forces have damaged the environments of host nations to such an extent that the costs for environmental cleanup and remediation of just one base "could approach Superfund proportions." (7)

Furthermore, the lack of environmental regulations during overseas operations has permitted open burn pits at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, which spew smoke containing known carcinogens. (8) For instance, at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq, commanders utilized jet fuel in a burn pit--the sole means of trash disposal for four years--to burn 500,000 pounds of trash per day, including plastics, food, and medical wastes. (9) In a still-classified study, the Chief of Aeromedical Services stated that "the known carcinogens and respiratory sensitizers released into the atmosphere by the burn pit present both an acute and chronic health hazard to our troops and the local populations." (10) In fact, many soldiers who have been exposed to the burn pit have reported chronic cough and shortness of breath. …

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