The Defense Department agreed to such an assessment February 12 to resolve a suit brought by the Foundation on Economic Trends, a public interest organization founded by Jeremy Rifkin. The suit, filed last fall in U.S. District Court, claimed that the Pentagon had violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to consider the potential environmental impacts of the biological weapons research program, which involves researchers at military, corporate, and university laboratories in at least 21 states.
Under terms of the settlement, the Defense Department will have 15 months to assess issues of public health and safety, including emergency procedures for workers and risks arising from the possibility that pathogenic organisms could be released into the environment at these various locations. The statement must also examine whether existing security measures are adequate against the risks of sabotage or terrorism. In addition, the act requires consideration of potential alternatives to the program.
Andrew Kimbrell, policy director and legal counsel for the Foundation for Economic Trends, said the case sets a precedent through NEPA, subjecting a major defense program to public accountability for the first time. "A year and a half from now," he added, "we will be able to look at DOD's Environmental Impact Statement and challenge its inadequacies."
The settlement is expected to mean a broader application of NEPA to all types of federally funded research programs of all sorts. "This ruling hardly means that all federally funded research will be subject to lawsuits under NEPA," said Dinah Bear, lawyer for the Council on Environmental Quality, which advises the president on oversight and application of NEPA. "But now that someone is successful in using the act in this way, others will undoubtedly sue as well."
Stephanie Pollack, counsel for the nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation, said that the significance of the settlement lies in its requirement for a review of the entire biological warfare program.
In the past, she said, environmental groups have used NEPA to fight a specific building or dam. An earlier case brought by. the Foundation for Economic Trends, for example, resulted in an injunction and an environmental impact statement on the proposed construction of a biological warfare laboratory at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. The case is pending in federal court.
"Many people in the environmental movement have always known that the best chance for a review is to get one that assesses the broad impact of a whole program," Pollack said. "This victory will draw people's attention toward this broader role, and they will probably start to request programmatic or generic assessments more frequently."
Bear said the settlement also is likely to force federal funding agencies to begin to pay closer attention to the environmental impact of all research they are funding.