Committee on Environment and Public Works

Hearing on the Defense Department Proposal for Environmental Law Exemptions

April 2, 2003


Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing here today.   I know that you have served as the Chair of the Subcommittee on Readiness of the Armed Services Committee for some time.  My colleague from Nevada, Senator Ensign, now holds that post and has ably chaired two hearings on this subject since he took the gavel.  And my colleague Senator Warner serves as the Chair of Armed Services.


I’d like to say that - with all due respect to the fine work of my colleagues on that Committee -- this is the right venue for consideration of the Defense Department’s proposal. It proposes far-reaching and permanent exemptions to four laws within this Committee’s jurisdiction. 


I have served on this committee since 1986, as chair and ranking member of the full committee and subcommittees. I would ask the Chairman and Senator Warner to ensure that this committee consider and markup any proposal to amend these laws.   The expertise . . . the jurisdiction over this matter . . . resides here.


The central question of this hearing is whether our environmental laws hinder our ability to train our troops, to prepare and execute a war.  Always important, this question takes on special meaning with our young men and women engaged in war. No one in this room stands for impeding our ability to ensure that they have received the best training.


Nevada has always been at the forefront of providing for the nation’s defense – providing for some of the more dangerous exercises and training performed by our military. When I was growing up, we used to watch nuclear testing conducted in the desert at the Nevada Test Site.  Bleachers were erected so people could watch the explosions. 


We didn’t think a lot about the health and environmental consequences of that testing at the time.  It was a spectacle to watch.   Today, we are in the process expanding the site and making it the Nation’s premier counter terrorism training center.   I have been a staunch supporter of those efforts.


Proponents of the plan to exempt the military from several environmental laws have few concrete examples showing that those laws impede military readiness or that a blanket exclusion would improve readiness.


In fact, those laws already provide for case-by-case exclusions where national security dictates.   There is one broad, overarching exclusion that allows for the suspension of any administrative action - environmental or otherwise - in the name of national defense.


There are many good reasons to favor case-by-case exclusions over the broad exemptions the Department seeks. I want to talk about just one. We train our top pilots at the Naval Air Station just outside of the small rural community of Fallon, Nevada.   In the course of just a few years, 16 children have been diagnosed with leukemia in Fallon.  Three of those children have died.   The CDC, the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the State of Nevada have been searching for environmental clues to the leukemia problem in Fallon. 


At a hearing I held there now almost two years ago to the day, I heard the parents of those children and others ask me to find an answer.   One area of concern was the Naval Air Station.  Were there leaks of JP-8 fuel from the pipeline supplying the base?   Could those leaks have had an impact?   What is the impact of air emissions from over-flights?  We don’t conclusively know the answers to these questions.  What I do know is that the Commanders there can show that they’ve followed our environmental laws.  


I also know that if JP-8 or some other chemical leaked at the site, federal and state environmental officials would have the authority to get it cleaned up. I know that the Clean Air Act applies to the base and that the people of Fallon enjoy the same clean air protections as people in Reno, Sparks and the rest of the Nation.


That is as it should be.


But it wouldn’t be the case if the Department’s proposal were enacted.   And I think that would cast a cloud over places like the Fallon Naval Air Station.  The people of Fallon would no longer have the assurance of these protections.  


In the end, that would be both a disservice to them and to the Commanders at the Naval Air Station who strive to be good environmental stewards. 


Thank you, Mr. Chairman.