The Pentagon—Not Some Big Scary Corporation—Is The US’s Biggest Polluter


Is it just me, or is it getting warm in here?

One of the most underreported stories of the past few years is that the Pentagon is America’s biggest polluter. In fact, the Department of Defense (DoD) pumps out more than 750,000 tons of hazardous waste every year—more than the top three chemical companies combined. According to Planet Green, “pesticides, defoliants like Agent Orange, solvents, petroleum, lead, mercury, and depleted uranium are among the many deadly substances used by the military.” How are they getting away with this?

After failing to sign the Kyoto Accords (not the worst decision the US government has made), the US Congress passed an explicit provision guaranteeing the US military exemption from any energy reduction or measurement. This means that, unsurprisingly, the DoD and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are in bed together. Up until a few weeks ago, any military waste was measured in a far more lenient manner than any company in the private sector. That is still the case, but now the EPA and DoD claim that they are trying to implement newer, greener technologies.

On February 8th, the two governmental agencies “signed an agreement that formalizes the partnership between EPA and DoD to develop and implement technologies that will help create sustainable American military bases all over the world.”

The press release continues,

Under this Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)…  The cutting-edge research of EPA scientists and engineers will be used to develop tools and technologies that will aid DoD in achieving its vision of sustainability…

This MOU underscores… reducing overlap and fostering collaboration among federal agencies… provides an opportunity for EPA to use DoD’s military bases as test beds for tools, models and technologies that can then be shared more broadly in communities across the country.

Creating more sustainable military bases helps create healthier communities and a stronger economy. Reaching goals of sustainability in any community requires a holistic approach that addresses energy and water use while at the same time reducing waste. Instituting this sustainable approach will effectively manage costs and also shift the focus from how to clean up hazardous areas to how to prevent future environmental problems.

So what does this all mean? Nothing, essentially.

After breaking into the MOU, I found that the contract was wholly unbinding. Quotes include,

Subject to mutual consent and availability of funding, EPA and DoD intend to carry out joint activities to advance the development and/or demonstration of new applications and technologies that can be used to achieve mutual sustainability goals.

Nothing in this MOU, in and of itself, obligates the DoD or EPA to expend appropriations or to enter into any contract, assistance agreement, interagency agreement, or other financial agreement or obligation.

This MOU does not create any legally enforceable right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable by law or equity against the DoD or EPA, their officers or employees, or any other person.

So, essentially what this document does is show the EPA and DoD are holding hands, and making unenforceable promises to reduce the Pentagon’s effect on the planet.

This may, however, not be such a terrible thing. Green technology is notably expensive to research and effectuate; that means a potential excuse to expand the defense budget.

Instead of making empty promises and increasing governmental cronyism, the Department of Defense should consider downsizing its wasteful policies and programs. Defense is important, but so is the environment, and there are few who disagree that the DoD overspends and is overbloated. Damages to the environment are just one more negative externality to the DoD’s size and special privileges within the US government.

  • Pamela Wright

    Wow, you seem to have missed that military is indeed downsizing.

    Anyway, the military has for years been required to meet the same EPA regulations as everyone else in America. They are forbidden to operate in many areas due to the endangered species act and the cleanwater protection act. The various military agencies can and are often fined for any leaks or spills or mixed wastes. The military has to certify it’s hazardous waste and hazmat and hazcargo like everyone else. How do I know? I was a hazcargo certifier for 3 years in the Army. The exceptions they have are for things like contingency operations, which frankly cannot possibly meet the requirements of current regulation and still accomplish anything like their mission.

    Unfortunately, that mission means they are huge consumers of some very dangerous substances. They use more ammo than anyone, so have to dispose of that ammo, or clean up afterwards, more than others. They use pesticides more than others, because they operate in hostile environments with troops that need protecting from insects. You don’t go into those areas, and that’s just as well. But if you hamstring your military too much, you may find the people of those areas coming to you. Places like Afghanistan and Panama and Nairobi are not fun places to work in and diseases carried by insects can dessimate a military force pretty quickly. I

    n the past the military was a huge polluter who didn’t give a damn (and some commanders still do it if they are allowed to). But they’ve made huge strides overall and are NOT exempt from most Federal Regulations. The reason no one is rushing to create enforceable contracts and regulations just for the military is, you cannot do so without putting the military in a position where it may not be able to react and do its job. There are costs beyond finances for those kinds of policies. Assuming the worst of people, that they are “in bed with” each other or “holding hands” is a simplistic way of looking at a very complex problem and serves no one well.