Washington, DC–For the first time, a lawsuit charging the U.S. Air Force with illegally replacing its civilian natural resource specialists with private contractors is advancing to trial, after a decision by a federal district court. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled against motions by the Air Force to dismiss the suit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and Air Force biologists.
While centered on California’s Edwards Air Force Base, the suit may block Department of Defense (DoD) plans to “outsource” hundreds of civilian biologist, botanist and archaeologist positions now responsible for protecting natural and cultural resources on more than 25 million acres of DoD lands across the U.S.
The ruling comes at a time when the Pentagon is seeking congressional relief from environmental compliance arguing, in part, that current Defense “stewardship” practices are capable of protecting the environment. The PEER suit contends that DoD contracting enables the agency to hide environmental violations by replacing civil servant scientists with compliant contractors seeking to keep discretionary contracts.
“The Pentagon touts its stewardship with one hand, and whacks the stewards with the other,” commented PEER General Counsel Dan Meyer. PEER also defends a number of civilian defense specialists in whistleblower actions. “At Edwards, after audits found repeated violations of the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts, the Air Force tried to cover up the findings and reprimanded the specialist who reported them.”
More than 90 percent of the 300,000 acres of California desert within Edwards Air Force Base is undeveloped, including several wilderness areas. Its 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 that military training and other operations, such as hazardous waste storage, avoid resource damage and do not pollute.
The PEER suit is based on 15 years of congressional prohibitions against the military contracting away its natural resource management functions. At Edwards Air Force Base the service has eliminated all but two natural resource specialists (while reducing the natural resource responsibilities of the remaining positions) 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 2000 to restore civilian management.