Cumberland Times-News

Local News

July 9, 2014

Move to keep military vehicles mothballed drawing criticism

— HARRISBURG, Pa. — The federal government, enforcing a long-ignored pollution rule, recently halted a program that has sent more than $21 million worth of surplus vehicles from the military to rural fire and police departments in Pennsylvania.

Heavy duty vehicles have gone from military surplus warehouses to 585 volunteer fire departments throughout the state, or about one out of every six departments, said Terry Brady, spokesman for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which manages the flow of surplus equipment for the purpose of fighting wildfires.

A rule now standing in the way of that program targets emissions that spew from diesel equipment, including trucks, generators, pumps and engine parts, according to the National Association of State Foresters. The rule is intended to force government equipment to comply with clean air rules, the group notes.

But enforcement of the rule, which comes about 25 years after it was implemented, is drawing criticism from rural fire and police officials.

“I use that program. It’s efficient. It’s recycling at its best,” said Dale Robinson, emergency management coordinator for Erie County. He is among those who question the wisdom of shutting down the program.

“It looks good on paper, but it’s short-sighted,” he said. “If we can’t put out a forest fire, how much greenhouse gas does that produce?”

Allen Clark, emergency director for Crawford County, said he recently visited the state’s surplus warehouse in Harrisburg to see what was available and discovered boxed equipment from Superstorm Sandy.

Crawford County fire departments use the program to procure generators, which are needed to provide electricity at emergency shelters during severe storms. “That was a great program,” Clark said.

Troy Thompson, a spokesman for the state Department of General Services, said local agencies usually roll out the surplus only during emergencies, which suggests that concerns about pollution may be exaggerated. “These are things that might sit in an equipment room for months,” he said.

The foresters association estimates the military surplus programs funnel more than $150 million in equipment each year to local agencies that could not otherwise afford it.

In Pennsylvania, more than 1,000 items have been sent to local emergency crews, said Brady, of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

That includes 840 vehicles in use by the state Bureau of Forestry and local fire departments, he said.

Additionally, local police use similar programs to obtain Humvees and vehicles the military designs to deflect mine blasts, said Thompson.

A separate program sends similar equipment to more than 500 local governments and non-profit groups throughout the state each year, Thompson said, though many items in that program aren’t affected by the rules governing emissions from diesel engines.

On Monday, eight large, military-style cargo trucks and a smaller pickup were parked outside a Harrisburg warehouse. Typically the equipment would be available for local agencies to acquire and repurpose.

Instead, Thompson said, the state is cataloging those and other vehicles for the U.S. Department of Defense. He added that he has not been told what will happen next.

As of Monday, the state had not been asked to account for diesel generators; more than a dozen were stored at its warehouse in Harrisburg.

Demand is heavy for the equipment. A website for the state’s surplus property program notes there are so many applications for the equipment, the state won’t take new requests until 2015, at the earliest.

In many cases, the state just transfers or loans equipment it obtains from the military to volunteer firehouses, at no cost to the local department, Brady said. Local departments are responsible for adapting the equipment for their purposes, though even then they may use state grants to cover the cost.

Other surplus programs require a local agency to pay a small transfer fee to get the equipment. “This federal program is pretty sweet,” Thompson said. “Most of this stuff is new or only slightly-used.”

In a statement last week, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency suggested the program may only be temporarily halted.

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