Live Fire

By John Liang / August 3, 2010 at 3:15 PM

The Army's plan to resume year-round, live-fire training at an Alaskan range is running up against significant concerns from both the Environmental Protection Agency and activists, Defense Environment Alert reports this morning.

Environmental activists are charging that the proposal will effectively violate a settlement agreement reached in a landmark case that contended Army training practices were breaching federal waste and water laws. Specifically:

The 2004 settlement had restricted the Army to using an impact range at Ft. Richardson's Eagle River Flats (ERF) seasonally, but the Army now wants to return to full training, contending the restrictions jeopardize troops' ability to be combat ready. The Army outlined its plans in a draft environmental impact statement (EIS), which the military released in March.

EPA Region X in recently submitted comments lists "serious concerns" with the potential impacts stemming from two different proposals analyzed under the draft document, particularly citing issues over water impacts, Superfund cleanup requirements and environmental justice impacts. At the same time, activists are raising issues over the plan's compliance with the 2004 settlement agreement that effectively limited live-fire training to certain seasons, and are specifically raising issues over water quality and endangered species.

"We are particularly concerned with the potential impacts to water quality, wetlands, Cook Inlet beluga, salmon stocks, shorebirds, other waterfowl, wildlife, recreation, visual resources, environmental justice (EJ), sensitive human populations, and commercial, recreation and subsistence fishing activities associated with the action alternatives," EPA Region X says in June 10 comments.

Live-fire training at ERF - a marshy area that has been used as a primary munitions impact area of Fort Richardson - has long been a contentious issue. In 2002, the Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) filed suit, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act and state and federal waste laws at the base, which is on the National Priorities List, the list of the nation's most hazardous waste sites. The suit alarmed high-level DOD officials, who worried that a damaging precedent could be set if the plaintiffs won and forced the military to stop training on an operational range, thereby impeding military readiness. Prior to the settlement, the military often cited the case as proof it needed Congress to relax environmental legal requirements in order to preserve military training.

Under the 2004 settlement, the Army halted live-fire training at ERF during summer and fall waterfowl migratory periods, which aimed to prevent the Army from stirring up white phosphorous in the sediment. White phosphorous had previously been used in smoke-generating munitions and was responsible for the deaths of numerous wild birds who ingested it. Firing is also only allowed if a certain level of ice thickness covers the water bodies in ERF.

In addition, under the settlement, the Army must conduct numerous other activities, including monitoring for migration of munitions constituents off-range, monitoring endangered beluga whales, analyzing environmental impacts of alternative training options upon remediation of the white phosphorous and before lifting any restrictions; documenting chemical constituents of munitions used, and applying for a Clean Water Act permit for the operational range.

But in the draft EIS notice, the Army says that it has undertaken cleanup of the white phosphorous under Superfund law, which will be completed this year, and that given ERF's importance as an environmental resource, it would adopt a set of new restrictions to protect valued resources under the expanded training plan (Defense Environment Alert, March 16). These would include following prohibitions against using munitions containing phosphorous in wetlands such as ERF, using environmentally-friendly training rounds when possible, and barring certain live-fire exercises during spring and fall waterfowl migration periods, among other measures.