U.S. Military Under Attack on Environmental Grounds

LEWISTON, Maine, June 25, 2001 (ENS) - A coalition of citizens organizations is challenging the U.S. Armed Forces, alleging that the health and safety of communities across the country is under assault from past and current polluting military operations.

In a new national campaign, citizens impacted by military operations from Hooper Bay, Alaska to Vieques, Puerto Rico are participating in the Military Toxics Projectís effort to hold the U.S. military accountable to the same laws that apply to all other sectors of society.

The military is not subject to most laws that protect communities and workers, either because it is completely exempt or because the Environmental Protection Agency has no enforcement authority, says Steve Taylor, national coordinator for the Maine based Military Toxics Project.

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Congressman Bob Filner (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
The campaign is timed to support the introduction of a bill by Congressman Bob Filner, a California Democrat, who represents San Diego, home to a large contingent of U.S. Navy ships in the Pacific Fleet, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, and the Naval Air Force.

On June 13, Filner introduced the Military Environmental Responsibility Act, which seeks to remove all military exemptions from existing environmental, worker and public safety laws and regulations.

To back up the new bill, the Military Toxics Project (MTP) released to Congress a report entitled "Defend Our Health: The U.S. Militaryís Environmental Assault On Communities." Prepared by MTP and Environmental Health Coalition, an environmental justice organization based in San Diego, the report shows how military exemptions from laws and lax enforcement by regulatory agencies have contributed to the existence of more than 27,000 toxic hot spots on 8,500 military properties across the country.

Based on the findings of this report, the citizens' groups charge that military activities like legal and illegal toxic dumping, testing and use of munitions, manufacture and use of depleted uranium ammunition, hazardous waste generation, nuclear propulsion, toxic air emissions have created "an environmental catastrophe."

Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Dave Gai says military personnel are members of the same communities that their critics say they are polluting. "We live in the same communities, we have an equally justifiable interest in maintaining the safety and preservation of the environment," he says.

While acknowledging that the military is exempt from some laws, Lt. Gai said, "We are subject to many of the same laws and regulations that industry and public sector are subject to."

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Aricraft carrier USS Constellation departs its home port of San Diego, California, to begin a regularly scheduled western Pacific deployment, April 1, 1977. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Neil Sheinbaum)
Taylor of the Military Toxics Project says the basis of most of the military exemptions is the sovereign immunity of the federal government. "The doctrine of sovereign immunity means that our government is not bound by the laws that bind the rest of us. The only laws that bind the federal government are laws the Congress passes that waive sovereign immunity."

"No federal law applies to the military unless Congress specifically makes that law apply to the military," Taylor said.

Filner's newly introduced bill, now before the House Armed Services Committee, would entirely waive any and all sovereign immunity and revoke all exemptions of the Department of Defense and all other defense related agencies within the United States and abroad from complying with all federal and state environmental laws that protect the health and safety of the public or the environment.

Certain laws do not apply to the military at all, such as the Oil Pollution Act and the Noise Act, Taylor says.

Most environmental laws, Taylor explains, are basically laws in which Congress has attempted to waive sovereign immunity and make them apply to the military, but these laws have run into problems of court interpretation or language with the waiver. These then become laws that do not apply fully to the military. Taylor says examples of such laws are the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation Liability Act, commonly known as the Superfund law.

There are some laws that do apply to the military such as the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act which governs the management of solid, hazardous, and medical waste.

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F/A 18 Hornet flies over Nevada (Photo courtesy Fallon Naval Air Station)
But even for those laws there are exemptions. For instance, President Bill Clinton made a 1999 Presidential Determination renewed in 2000 that exempted the U.S. Air Force's operating location near Groom Lake, Nevada. The operation is exempt "from any federal, state, interstate, or local hazardous or solid waste laws that might require the disclosure of classified information concerning that operating location to unauthorized persons," in the "paramount interest of the United States."

The Military Toxics Project report shows that communities and individuals adjacent to military operations, as well as active duty personnel, veterans, and civilian workers suffer from elevated cancer rates, intergenerational health problems, contaminated subsistence food chains, nuclear safety threats, intolerable noise and disruption, bombing of sacred areas, and destruction of wildlife habitat.

The report offers these among other examples:

A Defense Department source said that much of the data presented by the Military Toxics Project report is misconstrued, and statistics are interpreted to suit the citizens' agenda.

These are not exemptions sought by the military, said the official, they were established by Congress and Executive Order and by the Environmental Protection Agency.