Pentagon fights EPA on waste cleanup

WASHINGTON The dispute between the Pentagon and the Environmental Protection Agency has simmered over the last year since the EPA began issuing orders compelling the Air Force and Army to clean up four properties where contamination poses an "imminent and substantial" risk to public health and the environment. To date, the Pentagon has agreed to comply with only one of those orders, at an Air Force missile plant near Tucson, Ariz.

In separate letters in May to the White House budget office and the Justice Department, Pentagon officials challenged the EPA's authority to issue orders under other environmental laws to force Superfund cleanups at Air Force bases in New Jersey and Florida and at the Army's Fort Meade in Maryland. The Defense Department dismissed the EPA's claim that soil and groundwater pollution at the three bases was dangerous enough to warrant such action.

Senate Environment Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., agreed Monday with a request by Maryland's two Democratic senators, Barbara Mikulski and Benjamin Cardin, to hold a hearing on the Pentagon's noncompliance with the EPA's orders.

At eight other Superfund sites, the Pentagon is objecting to "additional provisions" that it says the EPA added to proposed cleanup contracts. Those eight facilities are in Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, New Jersey, Florida and Hawaii.

"The department, at different levels and times, has exhausted every available avenue with EPA to resolve these issues," Wayne Arny, deputy undersecretary of defense, said in a May 14 letter to White House budget officials. The letters were first reported by The Washington Post.

Tad Davis, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for environment, said in an interview Monday that cleanups are progressing at all 12 sites, including the Arizona missile plant, which has been on the EPA's Superfund list since 1986. The other 11 sites were put on the EPA's list of most polluted sites in the country in the 1990s.

"There is not a stoppage of work because we have not signed these agreements," Davis said. "We are moving out. We are not letting a lot of dialogue on these agreements" deter the cleanups.

The Defense Department has entered into contracts for 123 of the 135 Superfund sites it owns -- more than any other entity in the country. The contracts set formal schedules and allow the EPA to assess penalties if deadlines are missed.

Although law favors the EPA in disputes with other agencies over cleanups on federal property, the Pentagon is asking the Justice Department and White House to take its side.

Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and two other members of the panel wrote EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson last week urging him to treat the Defense Department like any other polluter.

"In this case, we have the DoD seeking to self-regulate, contrary to the law and the clear intent of Congress," Dingell, D-Mich., said Monday in a statement. Dingell noted President Bush had pledged during his 2000 campaign to hold federal agencies accountable to the same environmental standards as the businesses the EPA regulates.

Jonathan Shradar, an EPA spokesman, said Monday the agency will continue to work with the Pentagon to ensure that sites get cleaned up.

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