After persuading Congress to exempt the military from the nation's wildlife protection laws, the Pentagon once again has America's public health and pollution cleanup laws in its crosshairs.

Although defeated in the last two sessions of Congress, the Department of Defense (DoD) is set to unveil its latest legislative proposal, the "Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative," which seeks immunity from three fundamental federal laws: the Clean Air Act; Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA); and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (Superfund law).

The Pentagon's backdoor assault on these federal protections is expected to begin today when the Readiness Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee hears testimony on the Defense Authorization Request for FY 2006. (The open hearing is at 2:00 pm in 2118 Rayburn HOB.) Witnesses will include top military officials from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines--all of whom are expected to support sweeping exemptions from laws regulating air quality, hazardous waste and toxic cleanup despite the fact that the Pentagon has failed to produce any evidence to support its claims that the statutes hinder military readiness.

"The Pentagon's push for blanket exemptions from federal health and pollution cleanup safeguards makes a mockery of national defense. Using national security to sacrifice our nation's environmental security will endanger our health, leaving us less safe," said Karen Wayland, legislative director at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). "If Congress approves the Pentagon's exemptions, who will protect soldiers and citizens from the military's massive pollution, both on bases and in communities across the country?"

Other groups opposing the Pentagon's environmental exemptions include: National Association of Attorneys General, Environmental Council of the States, Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials, Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, American Water Works Association, National Association of Water Companies, Association of California Water Agencies, National League of Cities, National Association of Counties, Western Growers Association, and all major environmental organizations.

A pdf of the Pentagon's proposal is available by e-mailing What follows is a brief overview of the laws at risk from the latest exemptions request.

Clean Air Act

Under the Clean Air Act, all federal agencies, including DoD, must conform to any applicable federal or state implementation plan for attaining public health air quality standards--otherwise known as National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). This means that DoD activities cannot cause or contribute to a violation of NAAQS, increase the frequency or severity of NAAQS violations, or delay attainment of a particular standard. The Pentagon's proposal would permit the military to pollute our air by:

  • broadening the definition of "training" to exclude even non-military activities from NAAQS, such as driving vehicles on military bases or from one training site to another, or even spraying pesticides on a right-of-way;

  • eliminating timelines for the military to estimate the quantity of military emissions in non-attainment areas; and
  • lifting the requirement that military activities do not worsen air quality.

The Clean Air Act already provides ample mechanisms for exempting DoD activities when there is a national security need.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

The Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the nation's premier law for regulating hazardous wastes, established a cradle-to-grave management system designed to prevent toxic pollution and ensure that responsible parties pay to clean it up. DoD has a long history of flouting RCRA requirements. The number of EPA RCRA enforcement actions against DoD facilities outnumbers those for other agencies by a three-to-one margin. The Pentagon's proposal would largely remove hazardous wastes on military ranges from RCRA regulation by:

  • changing the definition of "solid waste" to exclude explosives, munitions, munitions fragments and other toxic material;

  • allowing toxic substances to be left lying exposed on the range, where they could leach into groundwater, surface waters or the air;
  • weakening the authority of the EPA and state officials to protect communities from toxic waste; and
  • preventing state authorities from collecting damages from DoD when its contamination injures sensitive public resources, including wildlife, fisheries and recreational areas.

Superfund Law (CERCLA)

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) enables cleanups at the nation's worst toxic waste sites by holding polluters responsible for the release of hazardous materials and by requiring polluters to pay into a trust fund that pays for cleanup when no responsible party can be identified. The Superfund's cleanup provisions are triggered by a "release" of a toxic substance. The Pentagon's proposal would exempt the military from cleaning up toxic substances by:

  • exempting from the term "release" any explosives, munitions, munitions fragments or other toxic material (unless the military closed the range or if the substances migrated off the range and required a clean up); and

  • delaying Superfund clean up until contamination has spread beyond range boundaries, thereby adding years and potentially billions of dollars to clean up efforts.

DoD is the nation's biggest polluter; its cleanup program includes nearly 28,000 currently or formerly contaminated sites in every state and territory, and even in other countries. California alone has 3,912 contaminated sites on 441 current and former DOD properties. Many of DOD's facilities have groundwater contamination plumes that threaten drinking water sources. For example, Otis Air Base on Cape Cod is a notorious Superfund site where contaminants have leached into the groundwater aquifer that is the area's sole source of drinking water. The estimated cost to clean up pollution at active and former military installations around the country exceeds $90 million.