July 3, 2008

EPA Needs Help Cleaning Up Pentagon

The Environmental Protection Agency has federal law on its side in a dispute with the Pentagon over the cleanup of three military bases and a dozen other sites across the country.

The Pentagon has really big guns and a brazen defiance fueled by years of apathy from the White House.

It's no surprise that the Pentagon is winning this standoff, but it is an injustice to the families who live near bases where toxic chemicals are poisoning the soil and groundwater. It's also an insult to private companies that don't get a pass when pollutants are discovered on their properties.

The Pentagon is the worst polluter in the United States. One in 10 of the nation's 1,255 Superfund sites are owned by the Department of Defense, according to a recent Washington Post report. An additional 25,000 military sites are contaminated at less severe but still unacceptable levels.

The EPA has ordered the cleanup of three bases in Maryland, Florida and New Jersey where chemical toxins pose a particularly severe threat to residents and the environment. The Pentagon has refused to cooperate, although its leaders insist they are taking care of the problem on their own. EPA officials are citing inadequate progress as reason to step up pressure.

There's not much cause to believe they'll be successful. Pentagon leaders have refused to sign legally required orders issued by the EPA for 12 other polluted sites, a violation that would bring lawsuits and fines of up to $28,000 for private companies. Those orders outline cleanup requirements and a timetable for compliance.

Other federal agencies seem to understand they are not above the law. NASA and the Energy Department are working with the EPA to clean up pollution on properties they own. Within the Pentagon, the Navy has laudably cooperated with the EPA, even as other branches of the military have refused.

President Bush promised as a candidate to make federal agencies comply with environmental laws. Somewhere along the way he's apparently lost his appetite for disciplining recalcitrant polluters, but it's not too late to get out the paddle. The Pentagon's insolence and long list of demerits make it an obvious place to start.

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