Bombs away 

To Carol Mosley, the U.S. Forest Service's one-year delay in deciding whether to let the Navy continue its bombing in the Ocala National Forest is a clear victory. And one for which the director of the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice readily takes credit.

"I believe we've created a need for this," says Mosley. The Navy, which has used nearly 6,000 acres of the 382,000-acre forest for target practice for 50 years, had hoped to win permission next month for a 20-year renewal of that activity. But rather than grant that extension, the Forest Service set a new deadline of July 31, 2002, for the Navy to prove that its use of the so-called Pinecastle range doesn't harm the forest's ecosystem.

The first draft of the Navy's Environmental Impact Study (EIS), released late last year, drew an outcry from Mosley's group. The coalition pointedly accused the Navy of withholding information on the contents of its bombs -- it drops nearly 20,000 a year at the site, a few hundred of which are "live" -- and contaminating the forest's groundwater.

A second, final report should be out by year's end.

"If we hadn't pointed out the holes in the [draft] document," Mosley says, "they'd have done a final [report] that was [the same as] the draft." She particularly eyes the Navy's groundwater tests with suspicion. The Navy, she says, only tested a small number of uphill wells, and since water runs downhill, the results suggesting there was no contamination at the site may be flawed. She fears that everything from TNT to depleted uranium may have seeped into the aquifer, which provides much of the water supply in that area.

If so, it wouldn't be the first time the military was tied to such contamination. Last year, federal investigators found that a bombing range in Massachusetts had high levels of explosive materials in the groundwater. Officials there said the contamination resulted from old ways of storing and disposing of munitions, and not the bombings themselves. But anti-bombing activists here have latched onto that story as proof that practice bombings are environmental disasters and need to be stopped.

Since the Navy doesn't store or dispose of munitions at Pinecastle, neither it nor the Forest Service seems concerned. "There hasn't been significant contamination found of any kind," says Forest Service spokeswoman Denise Rains. "[The studies are] the only basis in fact we have."

Still, Mosley counters that allowing the Navy to do the tests itself was a mistake, especially since it considers the Pinecastle range so important after the government's recent decision to close the ultra-politicized Vieques bombing range in 2003.

"It's the only place on the East Coast where we can do live impact training," says Navy spokesman Bill Dougherty, Even so, he says, any bombing permit would be based on the Navy's need right now, not in 2003 -- meaning that the frequency of the bombing probably won't increase in the short term.

For the most part, the coalition is the only group pressing the issue. Other environmental groups, namely the Sierra Club and Audubon Society, have backed away from this fight, giving the Navy license to paint Mosley as sort of a one-woman campaign. In fact, says the Forest Service's Jim Thorsen, of the 300-400 comments received during the 45-day public comment period that followed the release of the draft impact statement, only a handful demanded that the Navy leave altogether.

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Of those, he adds, most didn't come from the Ocala area, and some came from as far away as California. Says Thorsen: "There's not too many ways to handle [the cease-and-desist requests]." In other words, they were ignored.

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Mosley, however, doesn't buy those numbers. Her group, she says, handed in "a couple hundred" sample letters during the Navy's comment period. "I just hate dealing with people that won't be straight with you," she adds.

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Based upon her conversation with officials in the Forest Service, Mosley doesn't think the renewal is a done deal. In fact, she adds, the Navy's portrait of the EIS as an inter-agency matter between the Navy and the Forest Service is an "illusion. We don't see it as a simple, inter-agency anything. We think it's a national issue."

Even after the final EIS is accepted, she points out, citizens are still allowed to appeal any flaws they perceive. And before then, the Forest Service will still accept public comments. She's been promised that no decision will be reached until the Forest Service sees the final report.

But even if there's no contamination, Mosley still wants the Navy to turn the land back over to the public. After all, she asserts, they could accomplish as much training using simulators: "The nature of warfare's changed so much," she says, "this is not as necessary as [the Navy seems] to think."

The Navy, of course, disagrees. Yet if Mosley can't keep the bombs from falling, the drought can. Because of the threat of devastating fires ignited by live bombs, Dougherty says, the Navy has scaled back its bombing runs of late. "Once we get some rain," he says, "maybe we'll be able to accomplish some training."



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