Despite concerns, EPA backs enviro exemption for Defense Department

Environmental Protection Agency enforcement chief John Paul Suarez Tuesday told the Senate Armed Services Committee the agency fully supports a series of proposed environmental law exemptions for the Defense Department-despite the fact EPA has, until recently, maintained that laws such as the Clean Air Act pose no threat to the military's ability to prepare for war.

The public expression of support also comes despite internal criticism of the proposal by EPA that senior regulatory and enforcement staff, who have for years have dissmissed DOD's claims the exemptions are needed to ensure proper military readiness. In fact, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman earlier this year in testimony to Congress noted that despite the claims of DOD supporters, no environmental law had ever caused a major hurdle for readiness activities and bases.

"There is not a training mission anywhere in the country that is being held up or not taking place because of an environmental regulation," Whitman said in her testimony.

But in testimony to the Armed Services Committee, Suarez said the Bush administration proposal "appropriately addresses two important national priorities: military readiness and the protection of human health and the environment." Suarez also went on to say EPA and the Defense Department developed the proposal jointly.

However, in the past, EPA sources involved in those talks have privately complained that DOD was simply demanding EPA backing for the proposal and that the agency has not had any significant role in the proposal's development.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., who also sits on the Armed Services Committee, contended that the laws must be modified to counter the "unconscionable war on the military" being undertaken by environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has successfully challenged in court some DOD plans on environmental grounds.

Inhofe is expected to take up the issue of military exemptions this summer as part of his committee agenda, although no timeline for legislation has been set.