Activists, Democrats brace for Defense environment showdown

Environmentalists and House and Senate Democrats are preparing to battle the Bush administration's efforts to exempt the Defense Department from a host of key environmental laws, with both chambers expected to take up the issue over the next two weeks, sources say.

The issue has become increasingly politicized since it was first broached during the Clinton administration, and the Defense Department has been criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike for the effort. The administration has also run into resistance from state officials, particularly state attorneys general who worry the changes will weaken the federal backstop and result in more stringent controls on private companies.

Late last week, the House Resources Committee passed legislation sponsored by Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., that would ease controls on military activities under the Endangered Species Act, federal marine mammal laws and other environmental statutes.

Pombo, along with the White House, has argued the laws can limit the military's ability to adequately prepare for war. However, administration officials such as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman acknowledge there are no known instances where environmental rules have hampered Defense's ability to train its personnel.

Environmentalists and Democrats accuse the administration of seeking a wholesale exemption for the agency. For instance, one source charges the Pombo bill would not only apply to training areas but also to golf courses and swimming pools.

In the Senate, Defense backers have pushed a smaller package of exemptions, limiting the reforms to provisions of the Endangered Species Act that can put certain areas off-limits to development and other uses. However, several sources said that while the House has taken a more direct approach to the debate, GOP tactics in the Senate have concerned environmentalists and other opponents more.

One source explained that there is growing concern that Defense supporters will simply move a small piece of the larger proposal each year, using House attempts to pass a larger package as cover for an incremental erosion of federal environmental controls on military lands.

The House Armed Services Committee is expected to take up Pombo's bill Tuesday, and the Senate will likely address the issue next week during floor debate of the fiscal 2004 Defense reauthorization bill.