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EPA Resists Pentagon's Effort to Loosen Pollution Restrictions

Environment: Defense officials want a freer hand to conduct training exercises, in the name of military readiness.


WASHINGTON — For years, environmental restrictions have limited the military's use of low-altitude training flights over certain lands that harbor endangered species.

And just recently, the Interior Department told the Army that it could use the California desert to prepare its troops for Afghanistan only if exercises were conducted during daylight and on roads.

The Pentagon had hoped that in George W. Bush, it had found a president who would lift these kinds of environmental restrictions in the name of national security.

But now it could find itself locked in a bureaucratic battle with the Environmental Protection Agency, whose career staff has prepared for trench warfare against what it views as the Defense Department's assault on long-standing environmental rules and laws.

In recent weeks, the Defense Department has circulated to other federal agencies a draft of legislation that would waive provisions of a host of environmental laws for training exercises and other so-called readiness activities.

But career specialists at the EPA, in a briefing paper for Administrator Christie Whitman, criticized each Pentagon waiver request related to pollution laws.

For instance, one Pentagon suggestion would exclude munitions, explosives and other weapons from the list of pollutants governed by the Clean Water Act.

"The change to the definition of 'pollutant' under the draft bill is a broad change that could affect many sites and have far-reaching effects," the EPA staff said in the briefing paper, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.

The EPA staff stressed that environmental laws already provide mechanisms to exempt the military for reasons of national security or emergency.

EPA spokesman Joe Martyak confirmed that the agency had been exchanging views with the Pentagon over the issue, but he would not give details about the EPA's comments. He stressed that the EPA had not finalized its responses to the Defense Department's proposals.

In a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee last month, one top military official after another complained about the threat to military readiness caused by environmental regulations.

That committee plans to move legislation addressing the problems this spring, according to Sarah Shelden, spokeswoman for the committee's chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.). It is waiting for suggestions from the military services before drafting its legislation.

The Pentagon has not shared its draft bill with Hefley or his committee staff, Shelden said.

Defense officials refused to comment on the draft document and would not say whether it reflected current thinking at the Pentagon. Speaking on National Public Radio on Wednesday, Paul Mayberry, deputy undersecretary of Defense for readiness, said he had been working with other agencies on an administration proposal but stressed that no final legislative package had yet received the Pentagon's approval.

Nonetheless, the draft document and EPA's staff comments gave at least an indication of the Defense Department's effort to rein in an array of environmental laws through one sweeping bill.

The draft legislation, titled "Sustained Defense Readiness and Environmental Protection Act" and dated March 7, stressed that the expansion of federal and state environmental laws together with urban sprawl "has markedly restricted the military's ability to train realistically."

This "encroachment has already negatively affected military readiness and will continue to erode it unless this trend is reversed," the draft legislation stated.

The EPA staff was particularly concerned about a Pentagon proposal that would prevent states from prohibiting military readiness activities that violated their air quality plans.

Such a change could "force the states to take more stringent measures against private industry polluters in order to reach [Clean Air Act] ambient air quality standards," according to the EPA briefing document.

The agency's staff was also concerned that the EPA might not be able to protect human health and the environment if Defense Department munitions and training ranges were broadly exempted from regulations under the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, as called for in the Pentagon's draft legislation.

Some congressional aides said that the Armed Services Committee is likely to embrace a reasonable proposal from the Pentagon to reduce infringements on training exercises.

"We would hope to see a small list of common-sense tweaks to laws--some of which are 100 years old," said Bill Johnson, legislative director for Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah), an influential member of the Armed Services Committee and chairman of the Resources Committee. "We're unlikely to give them blanket exemptions."

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