DEFENSE BILL UNDER ATTACK DEMOCRATS, ENVIRONMENTALISTS GO AFTER LOOPHOLES IN TESTING REGULATIONS.
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE - Environmentalists and two Democratic congressional representatives said Tuesday that proposed exemptions in environmental laws for military testing and training are unnecessary, cynical attempts by Republicans to roll back protections for wildlife.
In a teleconference, representatives of environmental groups along with Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, and Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, criticized environmental law exemptions included in the proposed 2004 defense authorization bill.
The environmentalists and Democrats said Republicans are using fears of terrorism to attack environmental laws and vowed to fight to get the exemptions removed.
``They've turned it into industry gang warfare on our environmental laws,'' said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. ``They are exploiting the afterglow of the war in Iraq.
Opponents say the exemptions are unnecessary because existing law allows the Defense Department to seek exemptions for its activities for national security reasons. The Defense Department has asked only once for such an exemption.
Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Thousand Oaks, who wrote the exemption language, said the proposed changes balance the needs of national security and environmental protection.
``We endanger ourselves if we fail to allow our bases to train our military men and women and test new weapon systems,'' Gallegly said in a statement released for this week's House floor vote. ``And the environment wins as well. These provisions will provide a holistic, balanced regulatory approach to environmental protection on military bases and ranges, rather than the scattered and nonintegrated approach currently used.''
Gallegly's effort was supported by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Stockton, chairman of the House Resources Committee. Pombo spokesman Doug Heye said Pombo wanted the law changed to allow military bases to continue protecting the environment while allowing them to conduct their missions.
``These people (opponents) act like Chicken Little running around saying, the sky is falling, instead of enacting bills or working on compromise legislation,'' Heye said.
Approved by the Armed Services Committee last week, the bill will be up for a vote by the full House of Representatives this week, possibly as early as today.
``We need to stop this pernicious attack on our environmental laws,'' Tauscher said. ``We have a lot of strong environmentalists in the Republican Party. I hope we'll do better there (on the floor vote) than we did in committee.''
In its version of the 2004 defense authorization bill, the House Armed Services Committee is seeking exemptions for military training and testing in the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Supporters say the changes are needed to ensure that military preparedness is not handcuffed by environmental restrictions.
The House bill would change the Endangered Species Act to prohibit further designation of critical habitat on military bases where there is an integrated natural resource management plan. The Defense Department wanted the change to prevent the fragmentation of testing and training ranges.
An integrated natural resource management plan is aimed at protecting the environment while allowing a military base to conduct its mission. Edwards Air Force Base is in the process of adopting a plan.
The desert tortoise, whose habitat includes portions of Edwards, is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Of Edwards' 301,000 acres, some 65,000 acres are designated as critical habitat for the desert tortoise. Much of that area is on the base's Precision Impact Range, where nonexplosive bombs and missiles are tested.