With two wars in two years and the threat of terrorism likely to continue, the US military wants all the help it can get in protecting national security. It is an ideal time, supporters say, to reduce the government regulations that can make it harder to be "mission-ready."
For others, however, this politically popular goal conflicts with long-standing values. Specifically, the Department of Defense authorization bill that President Bush is scheduled to sign Monday eases the military's responsibility under two important environmental laws.
The bill allows the Navy to redefine "harassment" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, making it easier to use low- frequency sonar suspected of harming whales and dolphins. The Pentagon's $401 billion authorization bill for the 2004 fiscal year also exempts military bases from stringent habitat-protection requirements under the federal Endangered Species Act.
In addition, the Pentagon, as it has in the past, is seeking exemptions to the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (which governs hazardous waste), and the Superfund Act responsible for cleaning up toxic-waste sites around the country. Last year, an exemption to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was granted the military as well.
The scope of the issue is enormous. The Defense Department oversees some 25 million acres of military bases and other training facilities. The military's pollution problems - including corroding bombs and rockets, and old chemical munitions now outlawed - date back over a century.
Over the years, military facilities have come to include 131 hazardous-waste sites on the federal Superfund priority list. They are also home to more than 300 threatened or endangered species. Ironically, the pressures of nearby urban development (especially in places like southern California) have turned military ranges into prime habitat.
"As a member of the Armed Services Committee I have heard many times how endangered species affect the activities of our military," says Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, who also chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The US Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton in southern California, for example, is home to 18 listed species - from the bald eagle to the Riverside fairy shrimp.
MEANWHILE, officials say, newer war-fighting equipment, like aircraft and tracked vehicles, and modernized force structure - part of the much-vaunted "military transformation" - demand more space to practice combat.
In congressional testimony, senior military commanders and Pentagon civilians have warned that combat units are finding it harder to "train like we fight" - the military mantra for achieving readiness. This year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned lawmakers that without waivers to environmental laws, "We're going to end up sending men and women into battle without the training they need."
Lawmakers asked the General Accounting Office, Congress's investigative arm, to look into the issue. The result of that study, according to the GAO, "showed that very few units reported being unable to achieve combat-ready status due to inadequate training areas." Still, the GAO cautioned, "Over time, the impact of encroachment on training ranges has gradually increased ... exacerbated by population growth and urbanization."
That increasing encroachment on military training ranges - especially at a time when US military men and women are being killed and wounded in Iraq - is a strong argument for lawmakers who have been wanting to weaken or even do away with the Endangered Species Act.
Making a case for giving the Navy a break under the Marine Mammal Protection Act may be harder. Many marine biologists believe that the Navy's powerful sonar systems seriously affect and in some cases permanently damage the animals' means of communication and navigation, sometimes driving them into a frenzy in which they beach themselves and die.
Three years ago, 16 beached whales were found in the Bahamas after the Navy conducted sonar exercises in the vicinity. Seven died - apparently the victims of severe sound pressure that caused cranial hemorrhaging. Whales also beached themselves shortly after exercises in Greece, California, and the Canary Islands.
"Exempting the Pentagon from these laws will allow the military to threaten whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals with sonar and underwater explosives, and destroy the habitat of the endangered birds and mammals that live on the 25 million acres it controls across the country - with next to no environmental review," says Karen Wayland of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In recent years, the Defense Department has spent billions cleaning messes and adjusting its way of doing things to account for a new environmental ethic. "To its credit, the Defense Department has a leadership record in several areas of endangered-species conservation," says John Kostyack, senior counsel with the National Wildlife Federation. "It can build on that record without altering the Endangered Species Act, while fulfilling its primary mission without compromise."