Groups sue to stop army from firing on Eagle R. flats

Environmentalists, tribe say scattered munitions could pose hazard to wildlife

Posted: Friday, April 19, 2002

ANCHORAGE - Three environmental groups and the Chickaloon tribe have filed a lawsuit to stop the Army from using the Eagle River Flats firing range and to clean up the unexploded munitions.

The military has worked for the past seven years to rid the Fort Richardson firing range of white phosphorous, a substance used in some munitions that was found to kill ducks and other waterfowl.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit commended that effort but want more to be done to make the wetlands next to Cook Inlet safe for humans and wildlife.

Unexploded ordnance is scattered throughout the 2,500-acre range. Although no data links the munitions with harm to the environment, the plaintiffs argue that the rounds contain heavy metals and other dangerous chemicals that could leach into the water, causing problems for waterfowl and other wildlife, such as migrating salmon.

The Chickaloon Village Traditional Council is involved in the lawsuit because salmon that return to the Chickaloon River swim past the firing range, said Janet Daniels, a council spokeswoman.

The council and groups filed the lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, against the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

They contend the military has violated the Clean Water Act and other federal laws by continuing to use the range and not cleaning up the area.

"We think it's an incomplete cleanup until they address the unexploded ordnance," said Pam Miller, director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "This is a very productive estuary. We'd like them to stop using the area. It's not appropriate."

The other groups involved in the lawsuit are Cook Inlet Keeper and the Military Toxics Project.

The military said it is neither practical nor necessary to stop using the range or to do more than it is doing to clean up Eagle River Flats. In negotiations with the plaintiffs, however, the military had considered filing for a permit to continue to discharge munitions.

"All the data showed that artillery firing, which we've been doing for 50 years, has no adverse impact on public health or subsistence resources," said Maj. Ben Danner, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Alaska. "This is one of the Army's success stories."

Danner said a 1998 environmental report approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation stated that white phosphorous was the "only contaminant of concern."

The unexploded ordnance are considered dangerous to work around but not harmful to the environment, the report said.

Danner said the Army plans to continue using the range. "We have to keep our folks trained," he said.

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