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Army Rescinds Order to Tighten Environmental Spending

Funds are found after the cost-cutting tactic is questioned. Savings were sought for war effort.

May 28, 2004|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Army on Thursday rescinded an order, issued earlier this month, for garrison commanders around the globe to stop spending money on many environmental protection activities as part of an effort to conserve funds for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After reporters questioned the Pentagon on Thursday about the order, which was contained in an internal e-mail, Army officials said they had found the money necessary to keep environmental programs on track.

The e-mail, which was dated May 11, provides a rare insight into the Pentagon's belt-tightening as it tries to funnel maximum funds to its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I know that some of these actions will be painful," Maj. Gen. Anders Aadland said in the e-mail. "[W]e would not go to these severe measures if we had a choice but we do not."

The e-mail told Army commanders around the world to "take additional risk[s]" with environmental programs by canceling contracts and delaying efforts to enforce applicable laws. And it directed them to reduce spending in other areas, including training programs, equipment maintenance and security.

"All of you must implement these actions now and ensure resources are best used to support the war effort," wrote Aadland, commander of the Army's Installation Management Agency, which oversees the 118 Army bases in the U.S. and abroad.

But a subsequent e-mail from Aadland, sent three days later, "clarified" that the commanders should "take only reasonable risks that will not cause adverse impacts to human health and the environment."

Even though the order was ultimately rescinded, environmentalists and Democrats in Congress said the fact that it was sent showed that the military was giving low priority to environmental protection. They also suggested that the military only changed the order out of fear of negative publicity.

"It was indicative of a mind-set that environmental protection, even in the United States, is a discretionary activity," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Washington-based watchdog group that provided the initial e-mail to reporters. "Protecting America's land, air and water is not a secondary mission that should be shirked when budgets get tight."

But Aadland stressed in an interview Thursday that the "unfortunate" language of the original e-mail "was not a reflection of the Army's priority for the environment."

The Army had always intended that commanders restrict only those environmental programs that could be delayed without short-term negative effects, he said.

And, he said, "it was the Army's own conscience, not the media conscience, that caused us to get this back on track."

Pentagon officials said there had not been time for the short-lived order to affect environmental programs at bases. Aadland said they had hoped that the order to cut environmental programs would trim $10 million off the bases' overall budget, estimated at between $7 billion and $8 billion.

After receiving the first e-mail, the heads of the bases' environmental programs considered firing contractors who removed hazardous waste and provided cars for environmental officials checking compliance with applicable regulations, said Ruch, whose organization spoke with officials from a variety of military facilities.

The orders imposing and rescinding the cutback of environmental programs come as Congress is considering Pentagon requests that its operations receive exemptions from the Clean Air Act and two toxic waste laws.

Since President Bush took office, Pentagon officials have repeatedly sought exemptions from environmental laws that they say curtail their ability to train military personnel for the challenges of war. So far, Congress has granted the military exemptions from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Democrats in Congress said the e-mail calling for environmental cuts illustrated why the military should not be given exemptions.

"There are lots of times when folks have to make cutbacks, and environmental protection and the health of citizens is not the way to do it," said Malcolm Woolf, counsel to Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), the ranking minority member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

"That's why Sen. Jeffords has been so concerned about Pentagon officials' proposals to exempt themselves from environmental laws."

Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said the memo showed that the Bush administration was hiding the "full truth about the war's cost."

"At best, it highlights the administration's lack of candor and planning; at worst, it is further evidence of misplaced priorities that put tax cuts for the richest Americans ahead of the safety of our troops and the environment their children will inherit," Dingell said.

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