Defense slow to address effects of ‘encroachment’ on bases

The Defense Department is moving too slowly to put together a plan to deal with the effects of increasing urban sprawl near military training facilities and requirements that it follow strict environmental regulations, the General Accounting Office concludes in a new report.

Defense's Senior Readiness Oversight Council began discussing the issues of encroachment and environmental regulations two years ago. But since then, the department has been slow to develop plans for addressing the issues, GAO concluded in its report, "DOD Lacks a Comprehensive Plan to Manage Encroachment on Training Ranges" (GAO-02-614). In April of this year a Defense working group was still formulating a plan, which lacks implementation detail, GAO found.

GAO investigators visited four military installations and two major commands in California, Washington state, Florida, Nevada and Virginia, and said they found evidence of training impediments from encroachment. They recommended that Defense move swiftly to finish a clear and detailed plan to manage such issues. Further, GAO recommended that Defense develop inventories of its facilities and capacities; create a database of available training ranges to help reschedule training if one range becomes unavailable because of environmental or civilian safety issues; and develop a clear reporting system for changes implemented due to encroachment.

The effects of encroachment have been accumulating slowly over several years and are becoming too difficult to address on an ad hoc basis, GAO reported. The population of areas near training ranges is growing faster than the national average, resulting in higher costs to carry out exercises, increased safety concerns and a loss of flexibility in conducting training maneuvers.

Urban areas are encroaching on military basis in both physical and technological ways. Defense officials told GAO that the department has lost 27 percent of its total frequency spectrum for aircraft telemetry since 1992 to the commercial telecommunications industry, at a time when Defense demand for those frequencies has increased. At Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. officials are concerned that frequency interference from commercial users will affect the target control systems of weapons used in training exercises. Eglin officials also must negotiate with the surrounding community about the timing of bomb detonation exercises.

Environmental regulations also have raised concerns. More than 300 plants and animals classified as endangered species under federal laws live on military bases, and that number is expected to grow.

At the home of the Navy's Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk, Va., sailors must search the waters for two hours before performing live-fire exercises and cease immediately if a marine mammal enters the training area. At the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton, Calif., base, the use of off-road vehicles is limited to protect endangered species.

Military leaders say the Environmental Protection Agency could effectively shut down training on active ranges by applying environmental statutes to live munitions. Defense has sought a change in the definition of solid wastes in federal law to exclude munitions waste and modifications in the 1977 Clean Air Act to allow the military services three years to comply with its provisions.

Defense officials also told GAO they were concerned about airspace congestion, air visibility requirements (which limit training operations that generate smoke), pollution emission requirements, and noise and safety problems associated with urban and suburban growth near military installations.

While Defense officials have testified in Congress about the adverse affects of encroachment and environmental regulations, GAO found that military commanders did not frequently cite these issues as problems in readiness reports. High-level Defense officials have cited the rising costs of "workarounds" to accommodate environmental regulations, but have yet to fully quantify those costs, GAO found.

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