Rep. Blumenauer talks DOD enviro policies, base closures, corps reform

Should more military bases be shut down when many closed years ago still need massive cleanups? Is the Army Corps doing its job on wetlands and water issues? And which of the various plans for storing and moving nuclear waste will work best? Joining OnPoint is Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to discuss these and other environmental issues facing Congress.


Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. Our guest today is Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat of Oregon. Also with us is Ben Geman, a reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire. Congressman thanks for being here.

Earl Blumenauer: My pleasure.

Colin Sullivan: You're involved in an effort this week, first in the defense authorization bill and then in the military quality of life bill, to try to get the Pentagon to take more seriously environmental cleanup at some of its bases. Can you talk about your effort and why you feel it's so important?

Earl Blumenauer: Well, it's critical that the Department of Defense lead by example. It's the largest manager of infrastructure in the world. It's the largest generator of Superfund sites. It's the largest consumer of energy and if you look at what's happened on the areas that just deal with the BRAC sites, there are still dozens of sites in past efforts where we haven't done the job that we committed to the communities in terms of the cleanup. So I've been focusing just on the 1988 sites, there are 17 of them that still haven't been turned over because of environmental problems.

Colin Sullivan: So you think that they should basically not get on with the next round of the BRAC process until they complete environmental cleanup completely or --

Earl Blumenauer: It seems to me that it's inappropriate to start the fifth round of BRAC closing and not have met its commitments to communities from 17 years ago. It's a small part of a huge national problem. As you may know, there's an area that we suspect of contamination that is the size of Maryland and Massachusetts combined and this seems to me to be the lowest common denominator, the part that at a minimum we should be focusing on.

Colin Sullivan: Do you think that the military branches under the EPA have done a better job? There was a GAO report that came out in January that actually said some of the military branches have done a much better job of cleanup lately. Are you pleased with the progress or do you see no progress?

Earl Blumenauer: Well, on, my experience with many of the men and women in the military is that when they're given the chance they're superb. They understand these challenges. They want to be a good neighbor. The problem is the Pentagon hasn't kept a consistent high priority and Congress has been missing in action.

Ben Geman: On that front congressman, I think you're planning some specific amendments to the military quality of life bill to address this issue. Can you tell us a little bit about what those would do?

Earl Blumenauer: Well, it's my intention to offer up two. One is to have an amendment to the existing BRAC fund to have specific money set aside to cleanup at least the 1988 round. It's over $300 million. There's more than ample money there and that would be able to take care of it all. Failing that, I would offer a second amendment to at least deal with the unexploded ordinance, which is a $50 million problem on these 17 sites. It looks to me like no one should object to that after 17 years.

Ben Geman: Right, but I believe your amendments, if I'm correct, would pull those funds from the 2005 BRAC account.

Earl Blumenauer: Absolutely.

Ben Geman: Do you think there's political support for that?

Earl Blumenauer: Well, it seems to me that it is equitable that if you're going to start a new round that you ought to deal with these problems, as I say, that are almost 20 years old. There will be more opportunities for BRAC in the future and in fact, if I were facing a BRAC site that had serious problems of environmental remediation I'd feel more comfortable if I actually saw some commitment to deal with it, because I think that will lead to more money overall.

Ben Geman: And what level of political support are you sensing, either among your fellow Democrats or significantly on the GOP side of things?

Earl Blumenauer: Well, there are a number of people in both parties that are very concerned about the lack of follow through from the Pentagon. I've been working on this now for four or five years dealing with the overall issue. I find that more and more people are aware. There is an emerging problem around the country and it's not just dealing with BRAC sites. Three times since I've been in Congress we've had to bring firefighters out of the woods because the intense heat is exploding bombs that are off in these remote forested areas. It's a national problem. I think more and more people are paying attention to it.

Colin Sullivan: If we can move on to another issue, you're also intensely involved in the Water Resources Development Act. That process is ongoing this year. Can you give us an update and also for someone that's come into that issue with fresh eyes, why is WRDA so important? Why are you so involved, especially from the environmental side of things?

Earl Blumenauer: Well some of the major infrastructure investments that Congress makes go through the water resources process and sadly, we've seen things drop in without ever having been fully investigated going through the committee process. For example, sometimes there will be beach reconstruction projects for example, that may well commit us to 50 years of expenditure at over a billion dollars. The extent to which we can focus more attention on how we give the money, where we give the money, I think we're all going to be better off. One of the things that I am deeply concerned about, and what sort of brought the last water resources legislation to a halt, is trying to get an opportunity for independent review of major projects. It's an important reform that people who care about the fiscal considerations, Taxpayers for Common Sense, environmental considerations, they want to make sure that these projects are properly analyze before we get into it. And I'm hopeful that this is something that we can include in the process this year.

Colin Sullivan: Have you looked at Senator Bond's bill over in the Senate side? Are you content with, especially, wetlands mitigation efforts and also corps reform language, if there is any at all?

Earl Blumenauer: Yeah, historically the Senate has been a little better than the House. I haven't looked at the most recent language. We've been working to try and get the House to meet our commitments. You know, we keep falling short. We have these great policies, but we've done a terrible job of evaluating the permits for wetland fills and once we do this, we do a poor job of actually following through to make sure that it happens.

Ben Geman: I want to just stick on the idea of peer review, outside environmental review for a moment. That, I believe, did pass in the House in a prior bill. Do you think it's going to succeed again?

Earl Blumenauer: Well, I would hope so.

Ben Geman: And how about in the Senate?

Earl Blumenauer: Yes, in the Senate, in the past, there has been some interest. I don't know with the new composition of the Senate and the sort of strange dynamics that are going on these days, but I think there is a growing understanding that independent peer review actually is good for people on several respects because if you have a thorough gutting, if you have an independent clear-eyed look, it's less likely that these are going to be bogged down on political or legal grounds. I've got a project in the Pacific Northwest dealing with the Columbia River system. If we would have been able to have had independent peer review upfront I think it would've made it much easier for all concerned.

Ben Geman: I think that one thing that could create difficulties for a WRDA bill is simply just the large size of it. It's a multibillion dollar effort. Given the current fiscal climate and the size of the deficit, is it going to be tough, is that going to create an obstacle to getting a WRDA bill through?

Earl Blumenauer: Well, again, it's the terms under which it happens. If we're able, for both WRDA and the transportation bill, to be able to get it enacted with keeping the environmental protections in place, actually this is a way for us to get economic and environmental activity that would actually end up saving money in the long run and creating value. If we short cut the environmental protections it'll cost more and it'll slow it down and the legislation is much less attractive for passage.

Colin Sullivan: Another environmental issue that you've been involved in is the storage of nuclear waste. Now your district, in the northern part of Oregon, isn't far from the Hanford Washington storage facility. There's language in the Energy and Water appropriation bill that Chairman Hobson put in that would essentially allow for interim storage by Yucca Mountain and is in the process of being constructed. What's your feeling about that language? Do you support it? Do you think it's bad idea? Hanford was specifically listed as a possible site for interim storage.

Earl Blumenauer: Well, one of the problems that we've got in our approach to nuclear energy is we keep getting ahead of ourselves. I am less than 100 miles away from the most seriously polluted section in the United States. It's the greatest environmental threat to the Northwest. We have been investing there in cleanup for decades and there's no end in sight. I am very reluctant to see us start adding to the critical mass there on that, diverting from what I think ought to be a commitment to cleanup. I think most environmentalists are willing to be open about the possibility of some application of nuclear energy to deal with greenhouse gases, but not at the expense of dealing with the toxic legacy that we've had for shortcuts, mismanagement and miscalculation for the last two thirds of a century.

Colin Sullivan: What would you do with the nuclear waste in the meantime? Would you leave it where it is, Yucca Mountain? Do you support Yucca Mountain?

Earl Blumenauer: Well, again, from my perspective we've got to have the commitment to actually follow through on the cleanup that we've got. I don't want to lose the focus and I have seen, in the Pacific Northwest, a series of broken promises in terms of that cleanup. So I'm very reluctant to have the nuclear energy industry just sort of move forward without making sure that we're taking care of the basics. I think we need to hold people's feet to the flames. We need to act sooner rather than later, but to move forward, for example, with storage at Yucca Mountain leaving these questions remaining and not doing the job at Hanford, I think does no one any favor.

Ben Geman: You know, one issue I've heard a little bit of criticism of within the last few days, since Chairman Hobson introduced his plan, is that it essentially seemed to have sort of come out of nowhere. I mean were you taken by surprise by this --

Earl Blumenauer: It is not something that's on our radar screen, but that's not atypical of this Congress and it's not, in terms of the situation with the whole energy policy and environmental cleanup, it hasn't been sort of linear straight ahead working and building, which is another thing that makes people nervous and I think with good reason.

Ben Geman: Another issue up at Hanford, of course, has been within the budget. The Bush administration suggested a fairly significant cut. I believe it was over $250 million to the Hanford cleanup account. Some of that seems like it's coming back within the House, but how concerned are you that the Bush administration's backing away from Hanford cleanup?

Earl Blumenauer: Well I am very concerned about any weakening in the resolve. You mentioned earlier in the program the problem fiscally. We have big budget problems. I fear that some people will try and do some of these on the cheap, shortcutting our commitments to environmental cleanup and protection, which are going to cost us money in the long run and it's a very slippery slope to go down.

Colin Sullivan: Another issue you were involved in, another environmental issue you've been involved in, is in the WRDA supplemental there was some language that would give the Homeland Security Department an exemption to build a fence along the U.S./Mexico border, environmental exemptions. Can you talk about your opposition to that? Why you think that was a bad idea?

Earl Blumenauer: Well, bear in mind that this exemption was not just for a 3-and-a-half mile gap. Congress, in its wisdom, has given exemptions in the past to try and help this in the name of national security. What they have done here is to deal with a problem that they haven't been able to resolve and sought to extend the exemption to all 7,514 miles of the U.S. border, an indeterminate width away from the border, all protections. I thought that was a terrible precedent, unnecessary, ill advised. Let's focus in, if we really have a problem with a couple of miles of a border fence, let's find out why, because there are some serious problems that they haven't managed very well there. But to blow open all these safeguards that people take for granted and give it in the hands of TSA, the homeland security people who aren't exactly known for being well organized and sensitive, I think was just outrageous.

Colin Sullivan: Do you think it's a difficulty of balancing security and environmental concerns, especially, I mean the reason these kinds of things go through this kind of post 9/11 paranoia. Also, we were disappointed to see that the Senate kind of just accepted the House plan.

Earl Blumenauer: I was extremely disappointed and it's not just about national security. We have lots of national security concerns. This is not doing our job right. It's not being surgical and it is inviting people to run roughshod over the environmental wherever problems arise. And again, the precedent, if we do it here, we're going to see it in the future suspending all protections, not just environmental and I think it's outrageous.

Ben Geman: Looking more broadly for a moment at the state of the Congress. Just very recently there was passage of a stem cell research bill and over on the Senate side of things we had the, you know, people averting this whole nuclear option with a sort central coalition coming together. Are we seeing a sort of new ray of hope for centralism and bipartisanship or are things still very typically divided?

Earl Blumenauer: Well it speaks to the fact that the majority of Congress actually is willing to focus on a number of things that people care about. We had 50 Republicans break with their leadership. In some cases I think it was a very courageous and appropriate vote with the overwhelming majority of Democrats. There's no reason we couldn't have the same correlation on a wide range of issues that speak to the environment, that speak to energy, that speak to military cleanup. What needs to happen is that we have to have a few people go to the wire on the other side of the aisle, like they did with stem cell research, and insist on the opportunity of a vote. We need to have them take the environment and place it at a slightly higher priority. The American public is much closer together on these issues than the partisans in Congress and I think Congress is much closer together than their leadership. This is something that I think has been there all along, if we can just find a way to allow people to vote on it.

Colin Sullivan: Part of the problem there though is that it's not just within the Capitol. It's also outside the Capitol. You have these fringe interest groups kind of circling. Do you think that part of the problem on environmental issues would be similar to the judicial nomination fight? That maybe environmental groups have alienated Republicans, Western Republicans, not at all? What's your feeling about that?

Earl Blumenauer: You know I think that the breadth of people who are involved with issues that relate to the environment is extraordinarily broad. We've seen it, for example, in support of the provisions in the transportation bill where there are lots of green, flexible, enlightened provisions where a broad correlation comes together. I am convinced that there is a breadth in the environmental movement that can translate into action on Capitol Hill if we find ways to be able to force these issues to the floor of the House for votes. There's more strength than one would think and I continue to be optimistic that the public can help us reposition ourselves on Capitol Hill yet, in this session of Congress and in the future.

Colin Sullivan: So essentially you're saying with a more moderate leadership at the helm, even if Republicans are in charge, might be an easier thing?

Earl Blumenauer: It's not so much a case of more moderate leadership. It's the case where members of Congress decide that they are going to insist that they exercise their policymaking role.

Ben Geman: So, speaking of the leadership, there are a lot of questions floating around Tom DeLay. Should Tom DeLay resign?

Earl Blumenauer: Well, I am not a fan of Tom Delay's, the work that he has done, in terms of just the most recent energy bill, holding it hostage. He'll deal with his own thing whether it's, I think it would be helpful if he were to step aside as leader, at this point, to be able to have these ethical questions resolved. And I frankly think the Republicans on Capitol Hill would be better served because there's a lot of progress that can be made that won't be as polarizing, and we see nationally the public is just simply being fed up with this polarization and a Congress that is increasingly out of step, touch with their priorities. Nowhere is that more evident than when we deal with the environment.

Colin Sullivan: OK. We're out of time. Congressman Blumenauer thanks for coming on. I hope you come back. Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Until then I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV.

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