|WASHINGTON - The Pentagon asked Congress yesterday to help shield the U.S. military from environmental lawsuits which defense officials charged were threatening to close hundreds of live-fire training ranges in the country.|
The Defense Department said it wanted approval of \"modest clarifications\" in law that would, for example, grant bases three-year exemptions from some provisions of the federal Clean Air Act to allow initial testing of new weapons, such as the planned Joint Strike Fighter.
Individual states would have a right to decide whether to accept an exemption.
The exemptions, the Pentagon said, would make it easier to shift training sites for some weapons as the department closes or realigns domestic military bases in the future.
\"Past court cases have threatened to close down our military training, and that readiness risk is unacceptable,\" said Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Readiness Paul Mayberry.
He emphasized that training was crucial for the current military involvements in Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terrorism.
Senior Pentagon officials told reporters that testing at more than 500 domestic ranges, including those where bombs and missiles are used, is threatened by environmental suits like those that contributed to the closing of a Navy training range in Vieques, Puerto Rico, last year.
Environmental suits aimed at protecting wildlife and flora, such a suit as the Eagle River Flats training site near Fort Richardson, Alaska, could bring court rulings that would shut down that range and others if broadly interpreted, the officials said.
\'CANNOT WAIT FOR A TRAIN WRECK\'
\"We as a department cannot wait for a train wreck,\" Mayberry said.
The officials said that the new proposals could curb the use of of environmental cleanup laws in lawsuits to challenge operations at active training bases, where the military does not have cleanup obligations. The military is responsible for cleaning up pollution on closed bases.
\"The legal and regulatory regime that has enabled us to protect readiness while we protect the environment is under siege,\" said Ben Cohen, deputy general counsel in charge of environmental affairs for the Defense Department.
Since 2002, Congress has expanded protection of training bases from environmental suits. But it has so far refused to pass new proposals involving threats from pollution by weapons.
Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Ray Dubois and others charged that new interpretations of old laws were allowing environmentalists to mount challenges to training \"beyond their original legislative intent.\"
They said the Pentagon was spending $4 billion a year on cleaning up the environment, that installations throughout the country had won environmental awards and that the new proposals would not prevent cleaning up air and water.
Story by Charles Aldinger
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE