Army's Top Training Site Could Face Extinction

Major operations at the U.S. Army’s biggest training facility, the National Training Center (NTC) at Ft. Irwin, Calif., could be prohibited as a result of a new regulatory standard being proposed under the Clean Air Act.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed new standards for small airborne particles (referred to as “particulate matter 2.5 levels” or “PM 2.5 levels”) cannot be met by the NTC because it is downwind of the Los Angeles area, environmental officials at the base told HUMAN EVENTS.

“Studies we have had done show that the PM 2.5 levels here are constantly exceeding the standards even when there are no training days,” said Mark Burns, air quality program manager at Ft. Irwin.

“Training will add some to that,” said Muhammed Bari, Irwin’s chief of public works. “We will not have a way of meeting the standard.”

So does that mean that the government could forbid training at the NTC? “We could face that,” said Bari. Mickey Quillman, Irwin’s natural and cultural resources manager, said, “It’s possible.”

The new standards are due to be implemented next year. In order to deal with this and other problems, the Pentagon asked for a three-year exemption from certain Clean Air Act regulations, but neither the House nor Senate included the exemption in the Defense authorization bill that is currently in conference committee.

Brig. Gen. Joseph Fil, commanding general of NTC, testified before the House Resources Committee on May 6. “For years, we have strived to meet the compliance requirements associated with the PM 10 National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS). This has been particularly difficult considering the background concentration of particulate matter in the air, emanating from the Los Angeles basin,” he said. “While this has been a major challenge, we have successfully coped. . . . With the emerging requirements associated with the new PM 2.5 NAAQS, we are greatly concerned over the future impact on our training operations.”

Training will add particulate matter into air that is already out of compliance with the proposed new standard, said Bari. “It’s mainly the smoke from diesel and other chemicals. It can also be fine dust [kicked up by military vehicles in the desert],” he said.

“The NTC is in the Mojave Desert, an inherently arduous and unforgiving area,” says Ft. Irwin’s website. “High winds, hilly, rocky terrain, drastic temperature changes and sand storms are normal.”

The NTC already has environmental problems without having to worry about the new PM 2.5 standard. “Out of 752,000 acres, 45,000 is designated critical habitat for the desert tortoise,” said Quillman. The endangered tortoise causes various violations of the “train as you will fight” principle of the military. “Sometimes we have to stop [mock] battles to protect tortoises,” said Quillman. “It doesn’t happen too often.”

“We have a maneuver corridor critical to the way we train that we can’t use,” said Capt. Chris Belcher, deputy public affairs officer at Ft. Irwin, because “22,000 acres is off-limits.” Explained Public Affairs Officer Maj. Michael Lawhorn, “We can maneuver in only two kilometers of the corridor. The problem is, anti-tank weapons can more than cover that. If we were able to maneuver in that entire 22,000-acre area, they wouldn’t be able to cover just the chokepoint. Modern weapons system can reach farther and farther. We can no longer adequately represent that on the battlefield because of these restrictions.”

This hampered the training of one of the major units that recently fought for our country, he said. “The 3rd ID [Infantry Division] was over here before going over to Iraq. We were not able to represent the amount of distance they covered in the war. Of course, there is always a limit to how much area we can have, but these restrictions reduce that.”

Soldiers cannot use artificial fog as they would in war during training at NTC, said Quillman, because graphite, which might affect the tortoise, cannot be used. “Without graphite in there, you can look through the fog with infrared and see the soldiers.” Using graphite would “give our soldiers practice,” he said.

Bari said that the preservation of cultural resources, mostly Indian artifacts, also hampers activities. Said Quillman, “We have about 700 archeological sites within the NTC. But we have only 10 to 15 sites that are actually roped off.”

Ft. Irwin would like to expand its training area, but an endangered plant called the lane mountain milkvetch could prevent that. “We need the western expansion to have enough area to train the Army’s new Striker brigades,” said Lawhorn. The problem: The milkvetch is all over the area, said Quillman, and so Irwin has had to ask the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for permission to expand. “We expect a decision in January,” he said. If Fish & Wildlife says yes, he said, he expects a lawsuit. “An environmental group will put a lawsuit on my desk the next day,” he said.