New legislation would provide equal health protection for neighbors of the military

provided by the Environmental Health Coalition


an Diego is home to one of the largest concentrations of military activ ity in the country. The presence of the Navy poses significant impacts to neighboring communities and natural resources like San Diego Bay. The Navy has almost completed its project to locate three nuclear-powered aircraft carriers at Naval Air Station, North Island in Coronado.

    Because the Navy is self-regulated for nuclear activity and not required to disclosed full information about the area of impact from an accident, San Diego does not have the full information it needs to develop effective emergency plans in the event of a problem with a Navy nuclear reactor.

    We now are challenged to ensure that community health and safety and the environment are protected from the impacts of naval operations around the bay. To accomplish this, the Navy must be subjected to environmental, health and safety regulations equal to those required in the private sector. US Representative Bob Filner has drafted legislation to do just that: the Military Environmental Responsibility Act (MERA).

A national problem


    In 1990, Environmental Health Coalition became a founding member of the Military Toxics Project, joining with other grass-roots organizations to reduce the impacts of military operations and pollution on neighboring residents. The project now represents 400 community organizations, Native American tribes, veterans groups and individuals with the common purpose to promote cleanup, compliance and pollution prevention by US military bases and contractor facilities.

    “The military is like no other polluter,” said Laura Hunter, Director of EHC's Clean Bay Campaign. “It operates outside of democracy, it operates in secret, and it is immune from many environmental laws.”

    In November, EHC hosted a conference of the MTP Base Contamination Network. At a People's Congressional Hearing on Nov. 11, local elected and appointed officials heard public comment on the Military Environmental Responsibility Act (MERA), proposed federal legislation that would require military compliance with the same environmental and safety laws as other entities. Project members in attendance shared stories of the effects of nearby military operations on their communities.

    “We have had great success in this nation in the 1970s and 80s enacting environmental laws,” Filner said. “And yet it turns out the military, one of the biggest, most economically powerful and most capable organizations of doing damage to the environment, is not subject to these laws.”

Unequal protection for neighbors of military


    There generally are three ways the Navy skirts compliance with environmental laws: direct exemption, immunity from key provisions, and the Unitary Executive policy. The military is specifically exempted from all or significant aspects of several important laws, including the Oil Pollution Act, the Noise Act, and important planning and disclosure elements of the laws regulating nuclear activity.

    In other cases, courts have found that, while the language in the statute states that requirements of environmental laws apply, the legislative intent was not clear enough to allow full enforcement of environmental laws including punitive fines and administrative orders against the military for violations. This has frustrated regulatory efforts, especially for discharges to waters, because the Navy is immune from fines for spills under the Clean Water Act.

    Further, the policy of the “Unitary Executive” frustrates efforts to enforce against federal entities, citing that agencies that are part of the Executive Branch (like EPA) should not be able to sue or enforce against other Executive Branches (like the Navy).

    The problem is obvious. Laws that can not be fully enforced against violators do not protect community health. Blanket exemptions need to be removed and Congress must clarify existing laws to remove any doubt that communities want and deserve full protection from military pollution under the law.

Local problem, local support


    Last September, the Marines spilled more than two million gallons of sewage into the ocean near Oceanside. But unlike the case in which the City of San Diego was assessed a multimillion dollar fine for its significant sewage spill, no fines have been assessed to the Marines.

    The Navy also has shown blatant disregard for the environment in which it operates. In the past few years, the Navy has spilled more than 15,000 gallons of oil into our coastal waters all of it unregulated by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 or the state equivalent. In a similar disregard for the local environment, the Navy has twice violated the permit issued for its current San Diego Bay dredging project.

    A poll conducted for EHC by the San Diego State University Social Science Research Laboratory showed 66 percent of San Diegans favor holding the Navy to the same environmental protection laws and guidelines required of other industries. When asked for basis of their opinion, respondents cited support for application of consistent standards, concern about risks from operations, distrust of the Navy, and concern for the environment.

    An overwhelming 75 percent of the public said they would support a law that required an emergency planning zone for residents who live near nuclear-powered vessels in San Diego Bay. Such a planning area is a requirement around commercial nuclear reactor like San Onofre. Strong support for emergency planning was also evidenced by the fact that it enjoyed majority support by those respondents who had served in the armed forces (52 percent) as well as those who had not (81 percent). MERA would require this from all nuclear-related military operations.

Community must speak out and endorse MERA

    Environmental Health Coalition is working hard to get the protection we need for community health. Please endorse MERA by communicating your support in form of a letter to: Congressman Bob Filner, 333 F Street, Suite A, San Diego, CA 91910.

    To get involved or for more information, contact Environmental Health Coalition at (619) 235-0281, For a sample letter visit our Web site