San Diego Union Trbune

April 22, 2004

Military bid for environmental relief is debated
The dispute runs along party lines


WASHINGTON The military's renewed effort to get relief from some of the environmental laws that officials say could restrict training necessary to prepare troops for combat triggered a partisan dispute in a House committee hearing yesterday.

Most Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee appeared willing to approve the requested exemptions and clarification to ensure that training was not affected.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, whose district includes the Camp Pendleton Marine base, argued that government often has to make decisions that balance environmental concerns against other needs. In this case, he said, "if it's a close call, the military has to be able to make its case."

Although the Navy and the Marines have complained frequently about the environmental restrictions on their operations at Coronado Amphibious Base and Camp Pendleton, the naval services were not represented at the hearing.

Committee Democrats hammered the administration witnesses for lack of evidence that the environmental laws have hurt combat readiness and for not using the national security waivers allowed by the existing laws.

The Democrats were joined by an array of environmentalists and state and local government and water agency officials, who argued that the requested changes were overly broad, unnecessary and would be harmful to service personnel and their families and to citizens in communities near military bases.

Two congresswomen and water agency officials from Southern California cited the widespread problem from perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, which has polluted scores of public water supplies in their area, as an example of the danger of unrestricted defense operations.

The opponents quoted statements by former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Whitman and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that the environmental laws have not stopped the military from conducting necessary training.

While admitting they have been able to train under the current laws, the Pentagon officials said they were worried that environmentalists' lawsuits filed under those laws could force them to close essential training ranges.

Raymond DuBois, the deputy undersecretary of defense for environment and installations, cited legal action pending against an Army training area at Fort Richardson, Alaska, and the lawsuit that temporarily stopped bombing of a tiny Pacific island inhabited only by birds. Repeated protests and legal action forced the Navy and Marines to give up the training areas on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

DuBois insisted that the requested changes were narrowly focused on operational training ranges, did not apply to routine military functions or to defense contractors and did not change the Pentagon's obligation to clean up closed installations or pollution that extends beyond military reservations.

The goal, he said, was to protect the military's ability to conduct training with real ammunition, which is essential to prepare troops for combat.

"There is no substitute for realistic, live-fire training," DuBois said. "My experience as a young soldier in Vietnam convinces me we owe that" to the men and women in uniform today.

Brig. Gen. Louis Weber, director of Army training, said the requested changes to the Clean Air Act and two hazardous waste laws were "common-sense clarifications to ensure that these laws are applied as intended and that we preserve military training vital to our national defense."

Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, chairman of one of the two subcommittees holding the hearing, called the Pentagon's requests "very reasonable."

"We can't train our troops in a video arcade," he said.

The full committee chairman, Joe Barton, R-Texas, said he was concerned that the environmental laws "are hampering our ability to train our troops," a view shared by nearly every Republican who spoke.

But Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., led the opposition by declaring: "Never has a set of legislative proposals had so much audacity and so little merit."

Dingell noted that the Pentagon has provided no evidence of harm to combat readiness and has used the existing national security exemptions in only one instance, for the top secret Groom Lake Air Force Base in Nevada.

Reps. Hilda Solis, D-El Monte, and Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, complained about the perchlorate pollution in their districts and argued that the requested changes would risk further environmental harm.

The strong opposition by the Democrats and other critics suggests that the proposed changes to the environmental laws are unlikely to pass in an election year.

Similar proposals passed the GOP-dominated House last year, but were stalled in the Senate by Democrats and moderate Republicans. Congress then approved three minor provisions, including one that overturned the ruling on the tiny Pacific island.