PENTAGON SEEKING LAW EXEMPTIONS.
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE - The Pentagon is seeking exemptions in five environmental laws that the Defense Department say inhibits training and testing missions - a claim environmental organizations dispute.
The Pentagon wants exemptions from the environmental laws included in the 2004 Defense Authorization Bill, which Congress will begin hearings on next week.
Pentagon spokesmen did not respond Thursday to requests for comment. However, in recent interviews, Pentagon officials said they need greater flexibility in the laws to ensure that training and weapons testing is not disrupted.
Environmental and conservation groups counter that the military already has the flexibility to do its job and that there is no evidence to suggest that protecting the environment is hurting preparedness. An example of that flexibility is the fact that the secretary of defense has authority to exempt any activity from the Endangered Species Act, officials said.
``The Pentagon is using the threat of war to gut 30 years of public interest legislation,'' said Daniel Patterson of the Center for Biological Diversity, which in the past has sued government agencies to stiffen enforcement of environmental laws. ``It's convenient for them to use the drumbeat of war.''
The Pentagon made a similar push in Congress last year and was largely defeated, with the exception of gaining exemptions from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Patterson said.
This year, the Pentagon wants changes in laws governing endangered species, clean air, marine life, and toxic-waste cleanups.
Patterson said if such exemptions are granted to the Defense Department, it would open the door for other government agencies, such as Homeland Security and the Energy Department, to seek similar exemptions.
``This has the dangerous possibility of becoming a runaway train,'' Patterson said.
The proposed changes possibly could affect Edwards Air Force Base, and others could affect other Southern California installations such as Naval Base Ventura County and ocean testing ranges.
Among the changes sought by the Pentagon are permission for activities that cause ``insignificant behavioral changes'' on whales and seals, which under the Marine Mammal Protection Act military officials fear could be labeled illegal ``harassment'' of wildlife.
For example, U.S. Navy officials last year had to get permission to launch unarmed target missiles off the California coast from San Nicolas Island, where seals gather on the shore.
The Navy got permission only after the National Marine Fisheries Service answered objections to its conclusion that noise making a seal blink its eyes, turn its head or crawl a few feet along a beach did not mean it was harassed.
The Pentagon also plans to ask that the Endangered Species Act be amended to allow the Defense Department to use Integrated Natural Resource Management Plans to protect creatures rather than having to maintain critical habitat areas. That change would prevent the fragmentation of testing and training areas, military officials say.
The Pentagon wants the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act amended to clarify that munitions are not solid wastes. That would allow ranges to be continued to be used and would prevent that law from being used to shut them down.
The Pentagon is seeking to exclude live-fire training and testing from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. The law would still apply to closed ranges and areas away from ranges.
The Pentagon is seeking to amend the Clean Air Act to allow the military five years to bring its emissions into compliance with state regulations. That will allow the Defense Department more flexibility for fielding and basing weapons and aircraft.