About a week ago I had an interview with the Navy, and imagine my surprise that we (two lieutenants and myself) ended up talking about NEPA for about twenty minutes. Apparently environmental law is the fastest growing concentration in the Navy JAG Corps. I had no idea and was really surprised how excited they were when I told them I was taking an environmental law class on Natural Resources. This prompted me to do a little research on the Navy and NEPA and I was a little surprised about what I learned.
During my interview one of the lieutenants was telling me about how almost all of the Navy’s actions must go through some level of the NEPA process. Of course he said they try to get a Catex for everything but when that is not possible they have to do an EIS- and that takes a lot of legal man power and resources. Even something as seemingly simple as moving a ship usually requires an EIS. When you think the aggregate effects of moving a ship as large as a Naval Battle Ship you realize that dredges probably have to be made (effecting ecosystems), the ship has to go somewhere else and that means new building and pollution to the new area (even if it is just more pollution from new cars driving to the area), and marine life can easily be affected. So to even move a ship requires public comment, alternative considerations, and lots of research. And very cleverly, the public around bases has become aware of the power of NEPA and is quick to challenge any move by the Navy that they may not like (even if their primary concern is not really the environment, but more their standard of living).
The lieutenant did not try to hide the fact that he thought EIS’s were a lot of work and the Navy would prefer to get Catex’s whenever possible. Of course the Navy JAG environmental law website is much more optimistic sounding than he was. The Navy JAG Corps states its mission is “protecting human health, the environment, and historic and cultural resources” when dealing with environmental legal issues. And the Navy in general states it has an overall commitment to “environmental stewardship.” This seems true enough since there are plenty of websites with various Environmental Impact Statements for various projects easily available for public view. I believe you can even submit your comments via its websites. A Navy NEPA process website for a new training program in Hawaii even mentions that the Department of Defense often has to go through even more rigorous environmental protection measures than other agencies do. A former Air Force chief has even stated “the mission of the Department of Defense is more than aircraft, guns and missiles. Part of the defense job is protecting the lands, waters, timber and wildlife — the priceless natural resources that make this great nation of ours worth defending.”
However, on the flipside, for as many military websites there are spewing about goals of environmental protection there are just as many, if not more, websites about the Navy seeking exemptions from complying with NEPA. I guess the claim is that realistic training for soldiers is absolutely necessary to national safety (good point) and in many situations such training is not environmentally friendly. So what comes first- national safety or protection of the nation’s natural resources? For instance, under the Bush administration the Navy got exemption from the NEPA process when using sonar for training, despite evidence that sonar might be harmful to whales.
It also seems as though the Navy receives more permanent Catex’s than the other branches for the military. For instance, I found an Army training power point that listed the Navy has Catex’s for: the testing of weapon systems as long as it is similar to past actions that had no significant impact, training with weapon systems as long as it is similar to past actions that had no significant impact, and decommissioning/disposal of military equipment as long as it is IAW applicable regulations. The Army and Air Force do not have Catex’s for any of these operations.
The military also seeks exemption from the Endangered Species Act from time to time. One of the links posted is an interesting article which discusses the Endangered Species Coalitions concerns with the Navy resistance to deviating from its traditional training practices and looking for alternatives that would impact endangered species less. The Coalition argues that the military cannot protect endangered species if they themselves are exempted from complying with the law. The article is a little one sided, but an interesting perspective to read.
So what’s the conclusion? Is the Navy one of our greatest environmental protectors or destructors? I think the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. I am sure there is compromise on both sides, and I do believe there can be a way to have both effective training and protect and abide by environmental laws. It is important to see both sides of the situation, especially when it involves an institution as big and as powerful as the Navy, and be informed of what is going on.