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Pentagon Asks Easing of Rules

Environment: The White House wants to restrict protections for marine mammals. Changes are being sought to six laws.


WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is seeking to restrict protections for marine mammals as part of a sweeping proposal to exempt the military from key provisions of environmental legislation.

The Pentagon's proposed changes to six landmark environmental laws were presented to Congress in briefings Thursday. Draft legislation was delivered Friday evening to Capitol Hill. Members of Congress begin drafting the defense authorization bill next week.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act forbids--with certain exceptions--harassing, hunting, capturing or killing whales, dolphins or any other marine mammals.

Environmentalists charge that the Pentagon's proposal would dilute the definition of "harassment" so much that the National Marine Fisheries Service would find it difficult to regulate military activities that affect marine mammals. The changes also would make it harder for citizens and environmental groups to sue the military for endangering marine mammals.

The Pentagon's proposal, a draft of which was obtained by The Times, also would give the military exemptions under the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and hazardous waste laws.

According to the military, environmental laws have inhibited training at bases across the country and on the waters offshore.

"We have increasingly faced the inescapable fact that more and more training lands are now unavailable for us for this realistic combat live-fire training that is so necessary," Raymond DuBois, deputy undersecretary of Defense for installations and environment, said in an interview.

The Pentagon's proposed changes are intended to reverse that trend, he said, adding, "It will save lives in real combat."

But environmentalists and their supporters in Congress accused the Bush administration of trying to take advantage of a wartime situation. They also charged that President Bush is ignoring his principle of giving states a say in policy changes that seriously affect them and is breaking a campaign pledge to make federal agencies comply with the same laws that govern private industry.

The Defense Department "has not established the need for these significant exemptions from federal environmental laws and has failed to consider the views of state and local interests," said Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over pollution laws. The Pentagon "should concentrate on complying with the law and cleaning up the environment instead of seeking special preference to continue as the nation's greatest polluter."

Bill Johnson, a legislative aide for Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah), an ardent promoter of the Pentagon's proposal, described it as a common-sense change to laws that have overburdened the military and restricted training efforts.

"These are not broad waivers," Johnson said. "There are no exemptions for the Department of Defense, no rolling back of decades of environmental law--none of that has happened."

The law changes outlined in the briefing documents include:

* Freeing the military from the permits and record-keeping required by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act when migratory birds are killed or harmed during training exercises.

* Exempting explosives and munitions from the definition of solid waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Under this change, the Environmental Protection Agency still could step in if military ranges were polluting land or water outside firing ranges.

* Allowing the military extra time to comply with state plans for meeting federal air quality requirements under the Clean Air Act.

* Excluding military bases that already have management plans to protect endangered plants and animals from having their territory designated as critical habitat by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In the case of the Marine Mammal Act, the definition of harassment would be restricted to include only "biologically significant effects," such as death, injury and "disruption of significant activities."

The military's goals, DuBois said, are to avoid lawsuits for merely "annoying" a marine mammal and to prevent the need to get permits every time an aircraft carrier changes position. The current "hair-trigger" application of the broad definition has "profoundly affected" vital research and development efforts and training, he added.

For example, a scientific study funded by the Pentagon showed that a new long-range, lower-frequency sonar designed to detect ultra-quiet enemy submarines would "harass" marine mammals under the existing definition. So the Navy is waiting for a letter of authorization from the Fisheries Service to allow use of the sonar. If the definition of harassment were changed, the Navy likely would have greater leeway in using the sonar without seeking permission.

Environmentalists and scientists warned that, by narrowing the definition, the Pentagon could endanger marine mammals. Not enough is known about the animals' behavior to know what changes in their activities might signify real danger to them, scientists say.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a conservative public policy center in Arlington, Va., said there is no question that marine mammals would suffer from the legislative change.

"If I was a porpoise, I'd say it's time to retain a lawyer," he said.

But given the current climate on Capitol Hill, that may be a trade-off Congress is willing to make, he said.

"With the threat increased, people are more likely to think that the military requirement is more important than the environmental issue."

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