WASHINGTON — TOXIC solvents used to clean warplanes, tanks, and other weapons have long been among the Pentagon's major pollution problems.
So, in an effort to cut down its dangerous waste production, one Air Force depot has developed a greener method for stripping corrosion and dirt from jet engines: dry ice pellets blasted from a hose under pressure.
It's a move that is part of a larger trend. After decades as the biggest and least-accountable producer of pollutants in America, the Department of Defense (DOD) has begun to seriously address environmental concerns.
Pollutant control and compliance is slated to receive one of the largest percentage increases in the military budget for 1993, even though overall defense spending is sure to decline considerably.
Environmentalists welcome this funding rise and credit DOD's new pollution control efforts. But they worry about whether the defense bureaucracy has truly accepted the new environmental order.
And they point out that the Pentagon has made hardly a dent in the vast job of cleaning up contamination at its bases, both in the US and overseas. Need to do more cited
"Is DOD making progress on the environment? Yes," says Ralph De Gennaro, a Friends of the Earth federal budget expert. "But they need to do more. There's still a failure to accept that they're going to have to meet the same kind of standards that civilian industry has been meeting for years."
The DOD is the largest institution in America, and through the years many of its daily activities have left a stew of toxic or otherwise dangerous materials in their wake.
In 1989 the department estimated that it was producing some 900 million pounds of hazardous waste a year, for example. The same year DOD personnel were involved in 658 oil or toxic-waste spills that needed special cleanup.
Overall, DOD environmental officials have identified more than 20,000 sites contaminated by past practices at 1,600 different facilities. As of last year, 374 of those sites were listed as cleaned. Estimated cost for a complete scrubbing of Pentagon installations range from $20 billion on up. The contaminated sites range from oil-soaked motor pools to dumps full of chemicals used in poison gas.
The nuclear wastes of the nation's atomic bomb complex are a separate problem, largely the responsibility of the Department of Energy.
Military service efforts to clean up hot spots began on a small scale in 1975. In recent years, under pressure from Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Pentagon has planned explosive growth in funds for pollution cleanup and prevention.
For fiscal 1993, the Bush administration budget proposes $3.7 billion in Pentagon environment money - a 35 percent increase over 1992.
In addition, the budget calls for an extra $1 billion to supplement 1992 cleanup spending.
At least some of this funding apparently depends on raising cash by selling off excess stock from the Pentagon's stockpile of materials critical to wartime needs.
White House budget documents claim "major progress" in DOD environmental cleanup and compliance.
By the end of 1992, the Pentagon will have reduced the amount of hazardous waste it generates by 50 percent, when measured against 1987 levels, according to these documents.
"These actions are coupled with thousands of initiatives at local installations, ranging from base-wide recycling programs to massive reductions in energy use," says the budget.
Some environmentalists worry that approval of the environmental increase won't be automatic. After all, budget times are tough.
There is also the delicate problem of what to do about environmental problems on bases set for closure. The legal right of the government to dispose of facilities with serious environmental problems, if they're not completely cleaned up, is unclear. Capping pollution
Some of the bases may have groundwater contamination which might not be cleaned up, in a legal sense, for decades, though the pollution can be capped and watched. Money for quick cleanup on closing bases is tight. Yet local leaders are eager to convert them for new uses as fast as possible.
"The parts of these facilities that are most in demand are the very ones that have led to contamination - airplane maintenance facilities, auto maintenance facilities, etc.," says Don Gray, a groundwater expert at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.
Environmentalists and some members of Congress are also eager to make the Pentagon more accountable to pollution regulators. Currently, the Pentagon and other arms of the federal government claim protection from sanctions levied by state environmental agencies under a doctrine of "sovereign immunity."
Legislation passed last year by the House and Senate would strip away sovereign immunity for pollution cases.
This Federal Facilities Compliance Act has been stalled for months, waiting for a conference committee to meet and iron out differences between the two chambers' bills.