Polish poet Stanislaw Lec once asked, "Is it progress if a cannibal uses a fork?"
Lec's delicious query has crossed my mind as I've watched a succession of news stories and press releases in recent weeks involving the so-called “greening” of the U.S. military. It appears that the Pentagon wants it both ways: to be seen as an environmental leader while, whenever convenient, carpetbombing environmental regulations that get in its path.
In that regard, the Department of Defense -- and the federal government, for that matter -- resembles any number of multinational companies that have attempted to position themselves as environmental leaders, but whose lobbyists and trade associations often work actively to undermine or gut basic regulations designed to keep the cheaters and laggards in check.
Consider some of the military’s recent incursions into the environmental arena. First, the good news.
Last fall, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker and then-acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee signed a policy, titled “The Army Strategy for the Environment: Sustain the Mission -- Secure the Future.” According to an Army News Service story, “The new strategy is based on an organizing concept known as sustainability, which requires that the Army move beyond traditional environmental compliance to balance mission requirements, community needs, and natural resource protection.” Said Schoomaker and Brownlee at the singing: “We must become systems thinkers if we are to benefit from the interrelationships of the triple bottom line of sustainability: mission, environment, and community.”
The article quotes George Carellas, the assistant for Sustainability within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Installations and Environment:
The new strategy does not relieve the Army from its responsibility to comply with environmental law Carellas said, but places heavier emphasis on going beyond compliance by focusing on what the Army can do today to ensure a profitable “triple bottom line.”
Also last fall, the Defense Department issued a new procurement policy urging employees and military to "buy green." The new policy requires the department's civilian and military personnel to purchase products and services that benefit the environment -- things like recycled office supplies and lubricants and biomass-produced goods such as renewable energy.
Alex Beehler, DoD's chief of environmental safety and occupational health, said that “the green procurement policy is the latest endeavor by DoD to forge its reputation as being a good environmental steward,” according to American Forces Information Service.
So far, so good.
But last month, the Pentagon said it wants to change an internal policy that commits the department to sound environmental practices, reports the Los Angeles Times (via Common Dreams). For example, the Pentagon proposal would delete existing language that said it would be responsible for:
- "Protecting, preserving and, when required, restoring, and enhancing the quality of the environment."
- "Reducing risk to human health and the environment by identifying, evaluating and, where necessary, remediating contamination resulting from past DOD activities."
- "Preventing pollution and minimizing adverse environmental consequences."
- "Complying with applicable U.S. statutes, regulations, executive orders, binding international agreements, other legal requirements, and U.S. environmental, safety, occupational health, explosives safety, fire and emergency services, and pest management policies."
- "Conserving and restoring, where necessary, the natural and cultural heritage represented on DOD installations within the United States."
That’s not the first time the Pentagon has levied an assault on environmental regulations. Since President Bush took office, the Pentagon has won exemptions from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act, and seeks exemption from the Clean Air Act and two toxic waste laws, the Times reported.
And yet the Pentagon continues to extol its environmentalism. “The Department of Defense is proud of its work in protecting human health and the environment from past military environmental contamination,” according to a statement it made a few months ago. That statement was made in response to a USA Today investigation concluding that “taking extraordinary steps to limit the military's accountability for a 50-year legacy of pollution.” The newspaper reported that “About one in 10 Americans — nearly 29 million — live within 10 miles of a military site that is listed as a national priority for hazardous-waste cleanup under the federal Superfund program.”
Indeed, the Defense Department has more facilities on the Superfund National Priorities List than any other entity in the U.S. and has been blamed for contaminating billions of gallons of drinking water. A 2003 report by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce concluded that the department was responsible for 28,500 potentially contaminated sites across the country.
Even worse, BNA Environment Reporter reported last year that Defense Department sites are cleaned up more slowly than nonfederal Superfund sites. And that’s saying a lot, given the incredibly slow pace of cleanup under Superfund. The current rate of cleanup of Superfund sites is about 40 a year, less than half the 85-sites-a-year-rate when the programs was at its peak from 1997 to 2000. There are more than 1,300 toxic chemical sites scheduled for cleanup nationwide.
So, where’s “homeland security”? It’s out patrolling the globe when it should be at home, protecting Americans from some of the most hazardous “weapons of mass destruction” on the planet.