Earthjustice attorney David Henkin is giving the keynote address this month at the United Nations Environmental Program workshop in Okinawa on the military and the environment. Here’s a glimpse of what he will discuss:
What kind of work does Earthjustice do in the Mid-Pacific office?
Since Earthjustice opened the Mid-Pacific Office in Honolulu in 1988, we’ve represented environmental, Native Hawaiian and community organizations on a wide variety of matters. A large military presence and military training by its very nature threatens harm to the fragile ecosystems in the Pacific and the indigenous cultures that rely on them. We have been involved in several cases seeking to ensure the military complies with environmental laws, everything from protecting marine mammals from Navy sonar to ensuring Army training avoids pushing Hawai’i’s critically imperiled species to extinction.
What will you focus on at the U.N. meeting?
I was invited to speak based on the success Earthjustice has had at the Army’s Makua Military Reservation on O’ahu, securing protection from live-fire training for endangered plants and animals, compelling the Army to prepare a comprehensive environmental impact statement, and negotiating for clean-up of unexploded ordnance to increase opportunities for cultural access for Native Hawaiians to Makua’s many sacred sites. I will address the tools available under American law to ensure the military carries out its planning and operations in an environmentally responsible manner, as well as suggesting ways to improve national and international laws that apply to the military.
Is the Department of Defense becoming more or less respectful of the environment?
It’s less a question of "respect" than a realization on the military’s part that the public is deeply concerned that training does not destroy the things that make Hawai’i special and that, if the military flouts our nation’s environmental laws, it will be held to account. Earthjustice has played a major role both in elevating public awareness of military-related threats to the environment and in bringing litigation to compel the military’s compliance with its legal duties.
What environmental laws are most often in dispute when the U.S. military is involved?
The whole gamut of environmental laws come into play. In the Makua litigation alone, Earthjustice has challenged the Army’s failure to comply with the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Issues have also arisen regarding the National Historic Preservation Act due to threats to Makua’s numerous cultural sites as well as the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act, related to the disposal of munitions. In other cases, the Mid-Pacific Office has enforced the military’s obligations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (Navy sonar) and Migratory Bird Treaty Act (bombing of nesting grounds in the Northern Marianas).
What is the proper balance between protecting the U.S. and protecting our environment?
It is vital to recognize that protecting our environment is protecting the U.S. Ensuring that we have clean air, water and land, that our natural ecosystems are functioning properly, and that we leave a healthy world for future generations are all paramount national interests that our military must seek to advance, not undermine.
The fact of the matter is that, while despoiling the environment is often more convenient (in military training as in business and other human undertakings), it will rarely be the case that an environmentally destructive undertaking is the only way to ensure the military is adequately trained. More than 20 years ago, Congress amended the Endangered Species Act to give the Secretary of Defense the authority to exempt the military from the law’s requirements if complying with the law would endanger national security. That exemption has never been invoked. Environmentally responsible alternatives exist; it just requires a societal commitment to make sure they are implemented instead of more expedient, but more destructive, paths.