Washington, DC.. The U.S. Air Force is illegally replacing its civilian natural resource specialists with private contractors in order to cover up environmental violations, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and Air Force biologists. While centered at California’s Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), the suit may block Department of Defense (DOD) plans to “outsource” hundreds of civilian biologist, botanist and archaeologist positions now responsible for protecting the natural and cultural resources on more than 25 million acres of undeveloped DOD lands across the U.S.
The PEER suit is based on 15 years of repeated congressional prohibitions against the military contracting away its natural resource management functions. At Edwards AFB, the service has eliminated all but two natural resource specialists (while serving notice that even these two positions will be outsourced) and brought in private environmental consulting firms. The two remaining civilian biologists at Edwards, Wanda Deal and Mark Hagan, together with PEER, whose members include nearly 1,000 civilian Defense resource specialists, brought suit in the Federal District Court for the Central District of California to restore civilian management.
More than 90 percent of the 300,000 acres of California desert within Edwards AFB are undeveloped, including several wilderness areas. The Edwards AFB lands contain unique desert topography and critical habitat for “sensitive” species, such as the desert tortoise, the desert kit fox, several owl species, and an array of rare plants and flowers. The role of the civilian specialists is to ensure military uses, such as bombing, tank maneuvers, hazardous waste storage and low-altitude helicopter training, minimize resource damage.
Recent audits charge numerous violations of the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts at Edwards. The PEER suit claims the Air Force tried to cover up the violations and reprimand the civilian auditor who reported them. The suit alleges that the Air Force prefers private contractors who, in order to win and keep discretionary contracts, are less likely than civil servants to report legal problems or raise environmental concerns.
“The law is clear — natural resource management in Defense is a core governmental function that cannot be contracted out,” said PEER general Counsel Dan Meyer. “This lawsuit means the Air Force can no longer evade its environmental responsibilities.” The suit asks for compliance with environmental laws, restoration of displaced civilians, and an end to Air Force retaliation.