Keep the Pentagon Green

Military preparedness and environmental protection can often seem at odds. How do you hold live-fire exercises on a beach and not ruin a habitat?

That question and others are being raised by the Pentagon as it seeks an exemption from some federal environmental laws. A bill to provide such a national- security exemption has been introduced in Congress, and its backers are likely to get a sympathetic hearing. The nation, after all, is at war.

But lawmakers shouldn't be too quick to grant the armed services extensive freedom from compliance with laws designed to remove hazardous wastes, clean the air, and protect endangered species.

First, they should ask: "Why the urgency?" The same environmental laws have been in effect during other crises, such as the Gulf War. The Pentagon already spends some $4 billion a year to comply with these laws.

Second, just how harmful are the restrictions to military training? The Pentagon argues that more and more of the 25 million acres set aside for that purpose are off limits for live-fire exercises. Just how much land is left, and is it really inadequate? The Marines' base at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, for example, has 125,000 acres, 6,000 of which have been set aside as critical habitat for endangered or threatened species. The base is home to 18 such species, which find the open land hospitable.

Are the Marines there unable to train adequately? If endangered shrimp ponds in one area constrict tank maneuvers, aren't other areas available?

The Pentagon argues that the billions it spends on environmental compliance could be better spent elsewhere. There may be instances where its compliance should be modified to allow more effective training, something already possible under current law. But the amount of pollution caused by military operations – leaking petroleum and solvents, as well as exploded and unexploded ordnance – demands a high degree of environmental vigilance.

The largest single agency of the federal government – whose impact on the environment far exceeds many industries – should, to the greatest extent possible, set an example of environmental good citizenship.

And Congress should provide the extra funds for this national priority.

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