Deadly dependence 

The South's economic reliance on military bases has left a toxic legacy throughout the region

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This year the Pentagon upped the ante. It has proposed certain exemptions from some of the major environmental laws governing human health: the Clean Air Act, the Superfund law, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates hazardous waste. The most controversial of the proposals would strip the EPA and the states of the authority to order the cleanup of most munitions-related contamination on operational ranges. The proposal would cover 24 million acres -- an area larger than all of South Carolina.

"When you drop a bomb for training on an area Congress has specifically set aside for that purpose, just intuitively, that doesn't strike me as a hazardous-waste activity," says Joe Willging, a Defense Department attorney. Willging admits that military readiness has never been compromised by the hazardous-waste laws, but he worries that one pro-environment judge could create a "train wreck" by ordering the military to stop using a contaminated range. "When it comes to training soldiers who are actively involved in combat," he says, "we can't afford that one train wreck."

Pentagon officials insist they can be trusted as stewards of their own ranges, and that disaster could result if they restricted training in any way. "We're putting our soldiers, sailors, airmen at risk if we don't allow them to train with live munitions," says the Pentagon's Kratz. "The ability to conduct combat is a perishable skill. We need to have our military members train and train hard to survive in combat."

Still, the military's proposals have garnered widespread opposition. "The Pentagon is unquestionably the biggest polluter and most recalcitrant environmental violator on the planet," charged Dan Meyer, a former Navy gunnery officer who now serves as counsel to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "The Pentagon is the last place that any sane policymaker should want to confer environmental immunity." In April, attorneys general from 35 states and four territories warned congressional leaders that the measures "would significantly impair our ability to protect the health of our citizens and their environment." According to the attorneys, allowing tainted groundwater to spread to the edge of ranges unchecked would increase the odds of public exposure and jack up the cost of cleanup. The Pentagon's proposal, they charged, "would potentially turn its ranges, and the groundwater under them, into national sacrifice zones."

In the wake of the Camp Lejeune water scandal, it appears as if the military will not win its exemptions this year. But community advocates warn that the fight isn't over. "We should absolutely expect to see these proposals next year," says Steve Taylor, "especially if the current administration is re-unelected."

One instrucive detail in the exemption battle is which attorneys general didn't sign the protest letter. North Carolina's Roy Cooper was a signatory, along with his colleagues in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia. Missing from the list were the other Southern officials, including Georgia's Thurbert Baker, Florida's Charlie Crist, and South Carolina's Henry McMaster.

"The Florida military bases have really outstanding environmental records," says Crist spokesman Bob Sparks. "That's what he chose to focus on." (As an example, Sparks cites Naval Air Station Pensacola -- the Superfund site with the metals contamination -- for working with community groups to restore aquatic plants.) But there was another reason Crist declined to sign the letter, Sparks says: "A lot of citizens of Florida are on military bases. When you take into account military families that go to the local schools and spend their money in the communities, the economic impact is probably billions of dollars."

Therein lies the reluctance many civic leaders and elected officials feel about taking on the nation's largest polluter: The armed forces are so integral to Southern economies that crossing the Pentagon seems just too dangerous. With a new round of base closures slated for 2005, local communities are scrambling to stay in the Defense Department's good graces.

Take, for example, the Navy's efforts to build a landing field in eastern North Carolina to train F/A-18 Super Hornet squadrons. Local residents overwhelmingly oppose the project, which threatens the area's rich bird life and presents toxic threats such as spilled jet fuel. In response this year, some lawmakers pushed for a special session of the North Carolina Legislature, where they hoped to give the state a bit more power over military land-use decisions. But pressure from politicians representing military towns killed the idea.

"All the special session would have done is to stick a finger in the Department of Defense's eyes," says Sen. Tony Rand, a Democrat from Fayetteville, N.C., home of the Army's Fort Bragg. "The military is so important to eastern North Carolina -- it's about all we've got left down there. In 1991, when the 82nd Airborne went to the desert for the first Iraqi war, I had a client in Fayetteville who had 500 vacant apartments. We had a number of restaurants fail. If the military presence wasn't here, you'd take several billions out of the local economy, and it would be just devastating."

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