U.S. Military Battles Environmentalists

The U.S. armed forces are fighting what could be a prolonged battle, this one far from dangerous hotspots like Afghanistan or the Philippines.

This campaign involves the military’s struggle with environmental groups who believe the armed forces are among the biggest polluters in the country.

"We need the military to protect the nation … which means protecting the environment as well," said Andrea Durbin, a spokesman for the Greenpeace environmental group.

Environmentalists are particularly angry with a proposal to exempt the U.S. military from several laws designed to protect the environment. And the top brass at the Pentagon are firing back, telling Congress those laws are compromising training areas and threatening military readiness.

"Environmental concerns are very ... very important and we take those seriously. But we must be able to strike a balance with readiness requirements," Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional panel recently.

For example, because of endangered plants and animals along the 17 miles of coastline at Camp Pendleton, Calif., military activities are restricted to just a 500-foot stretch of beach. The Pentagon says it’s these kinds of rules that have to change if American forces can be properly trained for battle.

At the same time, the military is taking steps to become friendlier to the environment.

"Our budget request to the president includes over $4 billion for environmental programs," said Undersecretary of Defense Paul Mayberry.

Among the changes are new tungsten slugs for the fabled M-16 rifle, replacing conventional lead bullets that can cause toxic lead accumulations in the soil and ground water at military rifle ranges. Environmentalists pushed for the move, while critics said the new material costs twice as much as lead and relies on raw material supplied by China.

Nonetheless, environmentalists warn that if the military gets a pass on adhering to tougher new regulations, there would be little incentive to make choices "that either protect these resources or keep the air from becoming more polluted," said Marty Hayden, of the Earthjustice group.

The first victory in what has become a legislative battle has gone to the Pentagon. The House of Representatives has passed exemptions on environmental laws for the military, with the issue now moving to the Democratic-controlled Senate.