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
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
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
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
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. …