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Senate considering exemption for Army firing range

Posted: Wednesday, May 01, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- The U.S. Army has fired a pre-emptive strike against environmental groups suing to shut down the Eagle River Flats artillery range.

A Senate bill introduced this week at the request of the military would defuse one argument made by a trio of environmental groups and the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council in a lawsuit filed April 12.

The Department of Defense is also seeking special exemptions in federal laws that are at issue in the lawsuit, said Pam Miller, director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

''Our lawsuit is simply trying to get the Army to comply with environmental laws that industries and individuals have to comply with,'' she said.

The Senate State Affairs Committee proposed a bill to exempt active military ranges, such as the Fort Richardson range, from state waste disposal permits.

The bill is aimed to ''ensure the state's own statutes aren't used to threaten the future viability of our bases,'' said Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, through a sponsor statement.

Therriault chairs the Senate State Affairs Committee.

The environmental groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Anchorage to force the army to stop using the 2,500-acre range and clean up unexploded munitions.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Cook Inlet Keeper and the Military Toxics Project. They brought the lawsuit against the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

They contend the military violated the Clean Water Act and other federal laws by continuing to use the range and not cleaning it up.

Eagle River Flats is the only region south of the Alaska Range suitable for firing weapons such as artillery or mortars.

The military has worked for the past seven years to rid the Fort Richardson range of white phosphorous, a substance used in some munitions that was found to kill ducks and other waterfowl.

Although no data links the munitions with harm to the environment, the plaintiffs argue the rounds contain heavy metals and other dangerous chemicals that could leach into the water, causing problems for waterfowl and other wildlife such as migrating salmon.

A spokesman for the Army could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. But in documents filed before a House committee, the Army said it needs to continue live-fire exercises at Eagle River Flats to maintain readiness.

''If the environmental plaintiffs are successful in stopping training at (Fort Richardson), other military training ranges in Alaska are likely to come under similar attack,'' the document said.

Michele Brown, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said her agency has never required the military to seek a waste disposal permit.

The department has not taken a position on the bill, but is concerned that it may be filed too late in the session to get much scrutiny, Brown said.

''We're certainly troubled by dropping something of this magnitude two weeks before the session is over without chances for discussion,'' Brown said.

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The measure is Senate Bill 371.



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