Activists slam proposed environmental exemptions for military

The Bush administration's Defense Department reauthorization proposal includes a raft of exemptions from environmental laws long sought by the Pentagon, including endangered species protections and air quality rules, prompting outcries from environmentalists.

Although Democratic sources said party leaders where still reviewing the proposal at presstime Wednesday, they said strong opposition from Senate Democrats is almost certain.

"The Bush administration is blatantly exploiting the war to exempt military bases all over the country from environmental laws designed to protect public health," National Environmental Trust President Phil Clapp charged.

Specifically, the fiscal 2004 Defense reauthorization plan would exempt the military from complying with Clean Air Act conformity rules for up to three years, exempt training areas from the Endangered Species Act, relax some hazardous waste cleanup rules for explosives and munitions, and ease some marine mammal protections, among other rules.

DOD and its congressional backers have argued the changes are needed to remove barriers the military often faces when attempting to conduct "military readiness" exercises. Environmentalists, however, reject these claims, noting the Bush administration itself has acknowledged environmental rules have not stood in the way of any Defense training plans.

For instance, Clapp points to recent congressional testimony by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman in which she acknowledged, "There is not a training mission anywhere in the country that is being held up or not taking place because of an environmental regulation."

The proposal is similar to one put forth last year by the Bush administration. Although many of the exemptions were defeated by Democrats and moderate GOP lawmakers in the Senate, new Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., has listed the issue as one of his priorities, and the Pentagon has remained keen to see the proposal enacted.