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War on Terrorism Sparks Debate on US Environmental Laws - 2002-05-31

Since September 11, the U.S. military has been pressing for exemptions from a range of environmental laws. Environmental groups with the support of some lawmakers oppose the effort and say the war on terrorism should not be allowed to reverse hard-won progress in protecting the environment:

What do the northern spotted owl or the snail darter have to do with the war on terrorism? Not much at first glance. But these endangered species are at the center of a renewed domestic debate over environmental protection.

The U.S. military has long complained about "encroachment" which it defines as impediments to its ability to adequately train soldiers, resulting from laws that protect the environment or public safety.

Many military bases are located in areas subject to strict environmental laws. Sophisticated training such as "live fire" exercises or testing of laser-guide weapons are severely restricted.

Republican Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia says "encroachment" has a direct impact on the readiness of U.S. military forces. "When things go wrong on the battlefield, the importance of the Marine Mammal Protection Act or the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, or the Noise Control Act pale in comparison," he says. "I have yet to speak to a soldier, sailor, airman or marine who would prefer a migratory bird or marine mammal merit badge, to coming home in one piece from a battlefield."

Environmental groups counter that the military's need to prepare does not relieve it of the responsibility to avoid or minimize environmental damage. Andrew Wetzler, an attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, says "the American people have long supported strict environmental regulations. We think the military shouldn't be above the law, it should obey the law. We're not talking about national security, it should obey the law like everybody else. The reason we have a military is to protect our way of life, and one of the things they are protecting is our beautiful environment and our open spaces and our wilderness and we should not sacrifice that on the altar of the war against terrorism because then the terrorists will truly have won."

Lawmakers heard directly from officers in the navy, air force, army, marines and special operations command. Each gave examples of how preparations for the war against the al-Qaida in Afghanistan were hampered by environmental and other restrictions.

Colonel Thomas Waldhauser leads the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit based in Camp Pendleton, California. "Wildlife and habitat regulations, airspace and target engagement restrictions, and the proximity of civilian homes to our bases, cause our training to be sometimes fragmented, segmented and in many cases not in accordance with sound military doctrine," he says.

In April, the Pentagon proposed that it be exempted from complying with key environmental laws dealing with endangered species, clean air, and waste disposal. As part of a defense authorization bill, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved exemptions from only two, the Environmental Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

House democrats, such as Congressman Tom Allen of Maine, accuse Republicans of blocking debate and trying to shred the nation's environmental laws. "These efforts give the appearance of a stealth attempt by the most anti-environmental administration in generations, and its Republican allies in the Congress, to use the popularity of the military to carve loopholes in our nation's landmark environmental laws, laws they have been unable to repeal directly. And today's witness list is stacked to provide a one-sided anti-environmental view," he says.

Responding to these charges was Republican Congressman Edward Schrock of Virginia. "I heard someone say the Pentagon proposals will harm the environment," he says. "Give me a break! Every single base I have ever seen or served on, they are probably better stewards of the environment then most people in the civilian sector, so to say they aren't doing that is totally unfair and I think they need to be given the credit for what they're doing."

The tug of war over the issue of "encroachment" continues, with the Democrat-controlled Senate due to consider its own legislation on the Pentagon request for exemptions from environmental laws.