Area 51 Lessons - 8 News NOW

George Knapp, I-Team Reporter

Area 51 Lessons

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(July 29) -- Elected officials in Washington are expected to decide this fall whether to allow American military bases, including some in Nevada, to be exempted from meeting environmental regulations.

The Pentagon has complained that its ability to train American forces has been hindered by laws designed to protect endangered species and fragile ecosystems. 

So what would be the fallout from relaxing these laws? One indication may be the environmental record of the Area 51 military complex.

At a time like this, Americans are very supportive of the military. We recognize the importance of having the best military in the world, and if the Pentagon says it needs something, chances are, it will get it. But should military forces be able to sidestep environmental protections that apply to everyone else? It's happened before and the results weren't pretty.

"If you become what you are defending against, then you've lost. With Area 51, we've become what we are defending against,"  said Jonathan Turley, law professor.  He has spent the last eight years trying to secure justice for some two dozen anonymous employees of Nevada's Area 51 military base.

According to federal lawsuits filed by Turley, the managers of Area 51 routinely used large open pits to burn all wastes, toxic or otherwise. For years, base workers were exposed to clouds of poisonous fumes. When they sought medical attention for horrible sores and other problems, their employer refused to say what they had been exposed to. At least two base workers died from the exposure, including the husband of Helen Frost.

"I think of them as murderers, and it's not just my husband. You should talk to some of these other families," said Helen Frost, Area 51 widow.

Turley says the military has escaped responsibility because Area 51 was, for many years, officially non-existent. Laws simply didn't apply there. And when the government finally admitted what everyone knew, Area 51 sought and received a presidential exemption from all environmental laws.

"Corporate executives are convicted every day for this. In this very district, a small family business was indicted for burning six 55-gallon drums of this less than 50 miles from where the government torched dozens of barrels of the same chemical, said Turley.

Few states understand the impact of military programs better than Nevada. Now, the Pentagon is asking Congress to exempt military bases from all sorts of environmental protections. The contention is that military training has been undermined because of requirements that bases like Nellis Air Force Base or Fallon Air Station or the Hawthorne Ammunition Depot comply with laws regarding toxic waste disposal and protection of endangered species.

Some question whether the military is really in need of this exemption.  "We do have the finest military in the history of this planet while having those environmental protections in place. We just defeated a country in shorter time than it took Joe Millionaire to pick Zora, so we have a tradition of a fine military while observing environmental protections. We don't see a need to take those protections away," said Dan Geary. 

Consider the safety of Nevada's drinking water. Efforts are underway at the BMI complex in Henderson to remove ammonium perchlorate, a legacy of cold war defense programs at the plants. Officially the Pentagon says it doesn't want exemptions to this cleanup -- although it hasn't kicked in any help yet -- but congressional sources say the military specifically sought to get out from under a potential big bill for the Henderson cleanup and might try to do the same at other contaminated sites in the state.

If the Pentagon takes advantage of public sentiment and gets a green light to sidestep current law, environmentalists worry that scenarios like Area 51 could be repeated elsewhere.  "The military is such an important part of our community. They need to be good neighbors as well, and adhere to three decades of environmental protections," said Geary. 

Versions of the environmental exemptions have passed in each house of Congress and will head for a conference committee this fall. The House version is far more lenient with the military than the Senate version, which has the support of both Harry Reid and John Ensign. It's part of the much larger defense authorization bill, which is the Pentagon's budget. One of those versions, or a combination thereof, is going to pass.

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