HOHENFELS, Germany — In a community where almost everyone has a connection to the U.S. Army, German activists campaigning for stricter enforcement of environmental rules in and around Grafenwöhr Training Area often get the cold shoulder from locals.

But that hasn’t stopped the Zusammenschluss umweltbewusster Bürger (Union of Environmentally Conscious Citizens), or ZUB, from waging a 16-year battle against what it claims is poor environmental management of America’s largest overseas military training area.

ZUB founder Rainer Knoll has been a constant thorn in the side of U.S. and German authorities here, holding meetings, conducting investigations and issuing dozens of press releases over the years to highlight environmental issues with the training area.

Knoll said he founded the group, which has about 10 members, in 1992 because of concerns about the Haderhuehl landfill — an on-post dump that, according to ZUB, is leaching toxins into groundwater.

“We are quite concerned about this because it is very dangerous and a serious impact to the environment,” Knoll said. “Nobody wants to do anything because it will cost a lot of money.”

Over the years ZUB has attempted to get information about the landfill from the German government but its letters have gone unanswered, he said.

The group’s most recent dispatches concern the Army’s new 850-home off-post military housing area at Netzaberg.

The group alleges that lead in the ground and radioactive elements in the drinking water make the housing unsafe for residents, something the Army denies. ZUB also claims that the Army and German authorities failed to properly follow planning rules for the new town and illegally brought contaminated soil into the training area, which is classified as a protected nature reserve under European law.

Knoll said he got the information about the lead at Netzaberg from Bundnaturshutz, a German environmental non-governmental organization that was part of the planning process.

And he learned about radioactive elements in the drinking water by reading reports of the Eschenbach city council, which administers the town, he said.

Noise from the training area is another thing ZUB takes issue with, added Knoll, who works as an engineer in Erlangen but lives in Kirchenthumbach, a few hundred yards from Range 301, one of the most active tank ranges at Grafenwöhr.

But ZUB has hardly any support among Germans living in the area, many of whom work on post or run businesses that rely on the Army for patronage, he admitted.

A typical example is Martina Dorr, who sells insurance and vehicle transport services to Americans from her shop in Grafenwöhr.

Dorr said she used to live near U.S. bases in Hanau and heard similar complaints from people there.

“Then, when the Americans left, everybody was complaining [because they relied on the Americans for jobs],” she said.

Virtually every German whom Dorr knows in Grafenwöhr is connected to Americans, she said.

“There is no support for us,” Knoll said. “There are those who profit from the U.S. Army and other ones like me who suffer.”

Although Knoll wants the Americans to leave, that is not ZUB’s goal, he said.

“That decision will be made in Washington. Our intention is to prepare ourselves if the Americans decide to go,” he said.

Communities around Grafenwöhr are not prepared for the day when Americans might leave because the military has been a priority here for decades, he said.

“We have to compete with other areas, but if someone wants to build a factory they will never come to this place because we are living on the edge of the training area,” he said, citing a recent decision by a design firm not to build an office near his home because of vibrations from the gunnery range.

The military presence also makes it harder for traffic to move into the area from the south because it has to drive around the training area, he said.

Environmental rules should be strictly enforced around the base so that alternative businesses will be attracted to the area, he said.

“This is not a campaign against the Army,” he said. “We try to prepare this area for a civil future.”

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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