The military is deserting its environmental responsibilities
opinion by David S. Mann and Glen Milner
Recent announcements that the Pentagon is seeking further exemption
from environmental law, including the Endangered Species Act,
Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the National Environmental Policy Act,
are a threat to us all.
Added to this threat are decisions by the Bush administration to block
the public's right to know and understand federal activities, making
it more difficult to obtain records regarding military compliance to
The advancement of modern warfare and an ongoing war economy has
created an environmental nightmare for our nation; both in regard to
environmental disasters created in the development and use of
sophisticated weapons systems, and in the potential threat of a
The military is our nation's largest polluter and manages 25 million
acres of land providing habitat for 300 species listed as threatened
or endangered. In 1990, the Government Accounting Office identified
over 17,000 potentially hazardous sites on 1,900 active installations
in the US and its territories and possessions. Estimates for total
cost to bring the Department of Defense and Department of Energy
facilities into compliance with environmental laws and to restore
damaged areas exceed $400 billion.
In the same way our government resists entering into treaties with
other nations, the Pentagon seeks exemption from environmental
regulations in our own land. It is more of the same for an
administration that wants its way both at home and abroad.
It is a cynical argument, however, that we must drop environmental
regulation of our military as a result of the September 11 terrorist
attacks. Protecting our society against environmental harms,
including the harmful effects of toxic and nuclear wastes, should be
seen as a vital component of our "homeland security"--not something to
be quietly swept under the rug. It is important, as well, that
members of our armed forces are given as close to the same
environmental protections as the rest of society.
Further military exemptions to environmental laws could mean
significant consequences for the Puget Sound region, one of the
largest military concentrations in the United States.
McChord Air Force Base, near Tacoma, occupies 5,780 acres. To the
south, Fort Lewis Army Base occupies over 86,000 acres.
The US Navy has its third largest fleet concentration in Puget Sound.
Navy installations, including Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Oak
Harbor, Naval Station Bremerton, Naval Station Everett and Naval
Submarine Base Bangor, occupy more than 80,000 acres and miles of
shoreline on Puget Sound. The Strategic Weapons Facility at Bangor is
the last active nuclear weapons depot on the West Coast and the site
of deployment for approximately 1,760 nuclear warheads.
Puget Sound military facilities are the site of numerous Environmental
Protection Agency Superfund sites. Many of the bases have been used
since World War II and contain hazardous material from past activities
not yet discovered. All Puget Sound military sites include habitat
critical for threatened or endangered species.
In October 2001, US Attorney General John Ashcroft released a
statement in an effort to prevent public disclosure through the
Freedom of Information Act. An October 12, 2001 memo to federal
agencies from the Attorney General stated, "When you carefully
consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records... you can be
assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions..."
In a May 2002 response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the
Navy demanded over $1,500 for documents showing compliance to
environmental laws at the Trident nuclear submarine base at Bangor for
a 13 month period since December 2000. These same types of documents
had been released in the past without fees because they were
considered "in the public interest." Other documents, also related to
environmental issues, are now being withheld for purposes of "national
The purpose of the National Environmental Policy Act is for full
public disclosure. The law states, "NEPA procedures must insure that
environmental information is available to public officials and
citizens before decisions are made and before actions are taken."
Military compliance to environmental law, and public disclosure of
federal environmental records, must be maintained for the protection
of the Puget Sound region.
David S. Mann is a Seattle attorney specializing in environmental and
land use law. Glen Milner is a member of the Ground Zero Center for
Nonviolent Action. Please see