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Dahr Jamail | The Pentagon Is Using an Environmental Law Meant to Protect Us, Against Us

The military routinely breaks the law to get what it wants.

A ground crew member signals to an EA-18G Growler as it returns from a flight during heavy snows at Naval Air Facility Misawa. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kenneth G. Takada / US Navy)

While it has long been known the US military is one of the biggest polluters in the world, the egregious and intentional nature of its actions is less well known.

Canadian researchers recently revealed how an extremely toxic chemical used in US military explosives that the Pentagon has been downplaying for decades has been seeping into surrounding communities for years.

Meanwhile, as Truthout has reported extensively, US Naval warplanes are producing deadly levels of jet noise around airstrips in the Pacific Northwest, despite widespread public outcry.

For years, the Department of Defense has been using the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a 1970 law designed to protect people from harmful environmental actions by federal agencies, to allow military entities to engage in operations harmful to millions of civilians.

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“NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions,” the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website states about the law.

But experts are calling out the Department of Defense for repeatedly violating the spirit, intent, and often even the letter of this federal law.

Whether by dumping toxic waste in areas where people are exposed to it, or by conducting training exercises that subject people to harmful levels of noise, instead of protecting civilians, the military is willfully harming them.

The Military’s Playbook

Using the NEPA process, the US military is required to evaluate the environmental and related social and economic effects of their proposed actions. The military is also required by NEPA to provide opportunities for public review and comment on those evaluations.

But critics say the military has stacked the deck in its own favor in order to get what it wants, oftentimes even doing so illegally.

Karen Sullivan, a retired endangered species biologist, cofounded the West Coast Action Alliance, which acts as a watchdog of naval activities in the Pacific Northwest.

Sullivan has compiled a document that she believes to be akin to a DOD “NEPA Playbook,” which she shared with Truthout.

The pattern Sullivan sees the DOD use to insure its operations or trainings are never held up or denied by NEPA begins with the military always finding, in its environmental assessments, that its activities will have “no significant impact” on the environment or civilians.

Sullivan explained how in October 2017, she asked the Navy to provide examples within the last 10 years in the Pacific Northwest region where, during an environmental assessment (EA) process for any of their requests, impacts were determined to be significant. In such a case, the Navy would need to begin an environmental impact statement (EIS) process. Sullivan told Truthout that a Navy spokesperson told her, “There have been no regional Navy projects over the past 10 years that stopped an EA process, and elevated it to become an EIS process.”

How is this possible? Sullivan pointed out that if impacts from the military’s activities are likely to be significant for a particular project, the military segments that project into multiple pieces, so that several EAs (rather than one comprehensive EIS) can be prepared. This strategy allows it to portray the impacts described in each EA as below the threshold of significance. This is illegal. It is called “impermissible segmentation” under NEPA (40 CFR 1500-1508), which prohibits the breaking up of a larger project into smaller components that separately might have negligible impacts, but would, if considered together, likely be significant. It’s illegal for an agency to do this.

Sullivan pointed out that the Navy has “piecemealed” its aircraft testing and training activities in the Pacific Northwest, thereby hiding broader cumulative impacts of all of their war planes. “As a result of this piecemealing and not examining cumulative impacts, the Navy stated in its latest Growler [war plane] EIS that it could not promise that regional air quality would not fall below [federal] standards,” Sullivan said. “This would render our [Puget Sound] air quality closer to that of big cities like Chicago or New York.”

Another part of the “playbook” includes splitting larger EIS projects into “phases” and rolling them out in rapid succession. This tactic makes it nearly impossible for people to keep up with what the Navy is doing and functions as sort of an informational “shock and awe” tactic on the public, which is often left with thousands of pages of documentation to read and comprehend in an extremely short amount of time. Another entails the military citing an absence of controversy or public opposition to their plans as a justification to stay beneath “threshold triggers” for an EIS. Sullivan pointed out that this ignores the fact that actual environmental impacts from the Navy’s actions are what triggers the necessity of an EIS to be carried out.

Another play the military uses: It makes its public notifications of the meetings about proposed activities as cryptic as possible. It even removes the names and email addresses of vocal opponents from their mailing lists, according to Sullivan, who said she has been removed from Navy email lists for notifications at least three times.

The military also makes it difficult for the public to participate in its meetings and speak on the record, according to Sullivan. This is accomplished by limiting online public comments on complex issues to a low word count, and abbreviating and/or limiting some public comment periods. This is illegal according to NEPA policy.

In fact, the military often makes decisions on plans and commits funding for them before even initiating the public process, according to Sullivan. This, too, is against the law: Obviously, the NEPA process must be followed, in a correct order; hence, carrying forward on making plans and commitments of funding before the public process has been completed is yet another violation of the NEPA process..

Moreover, Sullivan said the military never proposes or considers any “preferred alternatives” to its plans that would actually reduce environmental or human impacts.

Sullivan explains that in evaluating potential impacts, the military also selectively ignores recent peer-reviewed scientific literature. “They cherry-pick statements from scientific papers and use them ambiguously and out of context, even if those papers concluded the opposite,” Sullivan, who has written at length about this tactic and its illegality, said.

The Military’s “Guidelines for Success” for Training on Public Lands

Carol Miller is a researcher and member of New Mexico’s Peaceful Skies Coalition, a coalition of groups working to hold unbridled and unchecked military expansionism in check in the state.

Miller pointed out to Truthout that, in response to the creation of Earth Day in 1970, the US Army War College hired a retired US Forest Service employee to create a guide for enabling more military operations on public lands.

“That darn Earth Day movement had created all the pesky environmentalists who felt they had an obligation to protect the land,” Miller said. “This document [“Military Training on Public Lands: Guidelines for Success“] is still the Bible of military land grabs for the public lands.”

The document contains a whole section on NEPA. Altogether, “Military Training on Public Lands: Guidelines for Success” is essentially a step-by-step guide instructing the military on how to get what it wants.

“Because many Americans have an increased awareness of environmental, social, and economic issues related to natural resource management, the military often faces adverse public reaction to conducting training on these lands,” reads page one of the report, which was authored by former US Forest Service employee Michael King. “My purpose here is to discuss the issue of military training on public lands and to identify guidelines that military decision makers can apply to meet their training objectives within the strictures that Americans expect of proper public land management.”

Page four of the document discusses an “Interdepartmental Agreement” between the DOD and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that requires the USDA to include making allowances for military “needs.”

“This Agreement updates earlier policy statements and identifies the procedure for planning, scheduling, and conducting military activities on National Forest Lands,” the document reads on pages 4-5. “It also affirms the long-standing policy that national forests can provide a variety of settings to conduct military training exercises.” In a section titled “Trends in Society,” the document discuss how the US “underwent a transformation toward an increased awareness and appreciation for natural resource lands and improved environmental laws. Legislation in Congress produced the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Wilderness Act, the National Trails Act, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.”

“In 1970, America experienced its first ‘Earth Day’ — April 22, 1970,” it reads. “The words ‘ecology,’ ‘environmentalist,’ ‘environmental analysis’ and ‘special interest group’ became the buzz words of the natural resource community.”

Then on page 7, the report discusses how “segments of the population feel that the bases and training centers scattered around the United States are the proper places to train” because “people are sensitized through television news, movies, and personal experience to equate training with destruction.”

“The idea of training on natural resource lands also violates a widespread belief that military training is not an appropriate use of these lands,” the report adds. “Wild lands are essentially ‘zoned’ for recreational enjoyment, wildlife, grazing, timber, and minerals management. Many people think military use violates the ‘psychological experience’ one comes to expect from public lands.”

Outlining a long-time part of the military’s strategy, page 11 states, “The congressional delegations and their staffs should be consulted and informed of the proposals to enter into agreements with public land or large private landowners.” This is because, as the report goes on to state, “Often the first place a concerned citizen or group turns to is their senators or representatives in Washington, D.C.”

One example of the effectiveness of this tactic comes in the form of the Washington Military Alliance (WMA), which works directly with Washington State’s Department of Commerce to assist in making all of the state “more compatible” with military activities, according to the WMA website. The WMA was convened and supported by Washington’s “green governor” Jay Inslee, and uses taxpayer money to fund studies supportive of bringing more military jobs to the state.

It is a perfect example of how a state bends over backwards to not only give the military everything it wants, but even more, to bring military money into the state economy, regardless of negative impacts on the environment or civilian populations.

Ignoring the Impacts

Glen Milner is a researcher and member of the activist group Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, which has been involved in two NEPA lawsuits against the Navy.

Milner told Truthout that the Navy consistently avoids conducting environmental impact statements, using the segmentation strategy Sullivan mentioned. One example of many he provided entailed the Navy ignoring impacts from vessel operations in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound in compiling an environmental assessment regarding Coast Guard vessels escorting naval submarines into the Sound. Milner filed a comment in the Navy’s EA on the issue last January.

“This type of segmenting is like building a bridge across a river, in which the agency obtains an EA for one side of the river, and [builds] half of the bridge before conducting an environmental review for the other side of the river,” he said. “By then, half the project is built and the full impacts of the project are never addressed.”

Given the vast scale of munitions and nuclear weapons stored by the Navy in the Puget Sound region, Milner warned that Washington State’s Hood Canal is “becoming an industrial corridor. An accident at the second Explosives Handling Wharf could cause a catastrophic explosion and spread plutonium across our region.”

Milner noted that the courts nearly always defer to the military when they are challenged by a lawsuit about the impacts of their plans.

Carol Miller said she has yet to see one example of the Department of Defense following the law when it comes to NEPA. She believes everyone should be concerned about how the Pentagon is handling its NEPA obligations.

“Anyone who cares about their health needs to get informed about military operations,” she said. “Anyone who cares about the environment needs to understand that the Pentagon is the biggest environmental threat to Planet Earth. The military does not care about the environment, whether human or natural; it’s all just terrain to them.”

Several examples she provided of the military contaminating water near their bases included Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and in Hawaii. Miller also cited those living downwind from nuclear weapons testing sites and the prevalence of thyroid cancer among them. In fact, nuclear waste has a legacy that is popping up everywhere, even in the suburbs of St. Louis, where the Pentagon did not bother doing anything to protect human health or the environment. Soil near a local creek in a St. Louis suburb was contaminated by nuclear weapons waste stored there during the 1960s and ’70s, and led to people living there now getting sick.

The military’s practice of ignoring civilians’ needs and interests is widespread. Sullivan pointed out how, in 2014, the Navy failed to notify affected communities of the creation of an electronic warfare range over Olympic National Park, Olympic National Forest and the west end of the Olympic Peninsula, including tribal lands. As a result, nobody knew about the EA and nobody was able to comment.

“Immediately after the short comment period closed, the Navy issued a ‘Finding of No Significant Impact’ that basically said nobody was concerned about it, therefore the impacts are minimal,” Miller said. “They then slammed the door and refused to accept any public comments after these communities found out about it.”

Karen Sullivan also mentioned that the Navy’s NEPA coordinator, John Mosher, told her there had been no Navy projects in the Puget Sound region over the last decade that had been stopped by an EA or EIS, which according to Sullivan, “means the outcomes were predetermined.”

Sullivan has spent the last several years of her retirement tracking the Navy’s ongoing NEPA violations in her region, and expresses frustration at the Navy’s lack of concern about the impacts of its activities.

“I don’t know how to say this any plainer: The Navy deliberately, routinely and chronically violates the law in order to prevent public input from altering or mitigating actions it has long decided on before initiating NEPA,” she said. “After studying the Navy’s NEPA compliance for several years, I believe it’s safe to say that our oldest environmental law has become the doormat on which they wipe their feet.”

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