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In our Endnote, “The Bear,” in Vol. 5, No. 4, we described contamination of Alaskan lands by nuclear and biological-weapons testing – carried out chiefly by the military, among other federal agencies. In a footnote, we mentioned a bill now before Congress that would require the military to conform to the same environmental laws as municipalities and ordinary citizens do. We asked the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Filner (D-Ca.) if he would explain his bill to our readers, and he sent us this reply. –Ed.

January 29, 2002

To the Editor:

Regarding a comment in your recent Endnotes, “The Bear,” may I describe the bill for which I am responsible and believe in strongly, the Military Environmental Responsibility Act (MERA), H.R. 2154? MERA would require the military to comply with the same rules and regulations as the private sector, because, I would argue, military exemptions from requirements and enforcement under environmental, public safety, and worker protection laws harm Americans. At present, those of our citizens living or working on the borders of military bases have fewer environmental protections than those elsewhere, because the military is not subject to the same environmental laws as municipalities and corporations are.

The problem is well documented. According to the Department of Defense, military installations have created over 27,000 toxic hot spots on 8,500 military properties. Let me cite two instances (among too many): Volatile organic compounds emitted from Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma caused low birth weights in babies born nearby. At the Massachusetts Military Reservation, burning of artillery propellant was linked to elevated rates of lung cancer in women.

Equal protection under the law for military neighbors, civilian workers, and active duty personnel is a reasonable request, and it deserves support. To that end, MERA would accomplish the simple goal of requiring the military to comply with the same rules and regulations as the private sector.

Clarification and strengthening of waivers of federal sovereign immunity are desperately needed in the Clean Water Act, Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), and Clean Air Act. Military exemptions must be removed from the Oil Pollution Act, Noise Act, the Atomic Energy act, and an laws regulating nuclear activity.

I should point out that, during the present mobilization, my bill will not compromise military readiness. Environmental laws currently include exemptions for the military in the event of "overriding public interest." They have been used only a few times, and the President would retain that authority under MERA.

Even in a loyal Navy town such as San Diego, where my district is located, a large majority of residents strongly support equal regulation of the Navy by environmental and emergency planning laws. In a public opinion poll released by San Diego’s Environmental Health Coalition, conducted by the S.D. State Social Science Research Laboratory (April 2000), city residents strongly supported holding the Navy to the same environmental protection laws as other organizations (66%).

An overwhelming 75% said they would support a law requiring the emergency planning zones be created around residential areas near nuclear-powered vessels in San Diego Bay as are required for all commercial nuclear reactors. A majority of respondents who had served in the armed forces (52%) favored such protections, while those who had not served (81%) favored them even more vigorously. I argue that this is evidence of strong support for emergency planning, and, further, that MERA addresses these issues.

The Military Environmental Responsibility Act says clearly that we citizens support our military, but that the armed forces must comply with the same rules and regulations that apply to the public sector. It reminds us/I believe that there is no greater national security interest or mission than the health and safety of our communities.


Bob Filner
Member of Congress
D-Ca. (50)

Note: On March 30, 2002, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon will ask major exemptions from environmental laws. The story, reported by Katharine Q. Seelye, began:

Washington, March 29 - Concerned that several environmental

laws are interfering with the military's ability to train

soldiers and develop weapons, the Pentagon is seeking a

Congressional exemption from an array of measures that have

protected endangered species and their habitats for years.

A draft of the exemption bill, circulating in the Pentagon

and on Capitol Hill, seeks exemptions on national security

grounds for bombing ranges, air bases and training grounds

from sections of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Marine

Mammal Protection Act, Noise Control Act, Migratory Bird

Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act.

We will follow developments.


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