Target Practice

At a Cape Cod arsenal, the EPA and the Pentagon square off over military pollution.

For more than 50 years, the Massachusetts Military Reservation (MMR) on Cape Cod has served as a training ground for U.S. troops and reservists; in exercises and simulated skirmishes, soldiers have bombarded the firing ranges with everything from mortar shells to small-caliber bullets. But today, another battle is being waged over the reservation's 20,000-plus acres of pitch pines, sand dunes, and ponds. The dispute centers on who will control the hazardous waste cleanup effort at current and former military installations around the country—a task that ultimately could dwarf the $300-billion federal Superfund program.

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Like many military sites around the nation, the Massachusetts reservation is heavily contaminated with unexploded ordnance that dates back to World War II. Once regarded simply as a safety hazard, the discarded ammunition has in recent years been identified as a significant source of pollution that leaches lead, other heavy metals, and a mix of toxic chemicals into nearby soil and groundwater, including the aquifer that supplies the Cape's drinking water. Experts from the Pentagon and local land-use agencies predict that the pollution—which has already tainted some 70 billion gallons of water in the aquifer and fouls another 8 million gallons per day—could contribute to severe water shortages on Cape Cod by 2020.

The entire reservation was designated a Superfund site in 1989; to date, more than $200 million has been spent on cleaning up a now-closed Air Force base on the territory's southern end. But the Pentagon has resisted efforts to extend the cleanup to the northern two-thirds of the reservation, which remains in active use. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued four consecutive orders demanding that the Pentagon limit its use of certain kinds of ordnance, study the environmental effects of live ammunition, and begin a cleanup—in other words, that it comply with the standards of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, just as any private citizen would be required to do.

Although defense officials objected to the first three EPA orders, they ultimately complied. But when the epa issued a fourth order this spring, imposing new restrictions on detonating ordnance on the reservation, the Pentagon dug in its heels. "[T]here is concern that EPA actions at mmr could set a precedent for the agency to take similar steps elsewhere," Maj. General Robert van Antwerp, an assistant chief of staff in charge of managing Army installations, told members of a Senate Armed Services subcommittee in March. In the long term, he warned, environmental "encroachment" at the Massachusetts reservation and other arsenals could "impact the Army's ability to fulfill its national security mission by causing the shutdown or disruption of live-fire training."

For now, the EPA is standing firm. In April, the agency rejected the Pentagon's appeal of its latest directive—a move environmental and community groups took as an encouraging signal. "This was a test," says Aimee Houghton of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, a California organization monitoring military-base closures. "The Army had been dragging its feet, knowing this is a new administration."

Environmentalists consider the Cape Cod case a bellwether for the Bush administration's stance on military pollution around the country. One expert with access to Pentagon documents estimates that up to 40 million acres of land on current and former defense installations are in need of cleanup. "They realize if there's a precedent set at EPA, their costs go out of control and their liability is huge across the country," says Houghton. "We call it the sleeping giant of environmental issues."

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