Pacific islanders and Greenpeace accuse US of negligence over toxic waste

The inhabitants of a far-flung US territory and Greenpeace are demanding a federal investigation into alleged “gross negligence and criminality” by American authorities over toxic dump sites.

Inhabitants of Saipan, part of the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), and Greenpeace demanded that the US Attorney General’s Office investigate alleged gross negligence and violation of federal laws by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over toxic waste dumping on the Pacific island paradise.

Both groups say that as a result of indiscriminate dumping of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) waste in the 1960’s high incidences of cancers, leukaemia, chromosomal changes and reproductive disorders have been reported in the worst-affected community, the village of Tanapag.

Locals, together with Greenpeace activists, from the ‘Rainbow Warrior’ flagship, demonstrated on 4 August in front of the US Attorney General’s Saipan office, proclaiming the US. government a “toxic criminal”. Greenpeace also sign-posted and fenced off piles of contaminated soil left after previous attempts by the US Department of Defense to clean up Tanapag. The group also demanded that the US Department of Defense should cleanup the sites and immediately evacuate Tanapag’s residents.

“We were not told that the waste left by the US was dangerous. For years we have used it in our communities to make roadblocks and as windbreakers. We even used some of it to make headstones in our cemetery. Now we know why so many of us get cancers and so many of us and our children are sick,” local resident, Mike Evangelista said. “We want an efficient cleanup implemented and we want an assurance that they will do it right this time”, he demanded.

“The US has demonstrated a total disregard for the environment and the health of people both here in Tanapag and at its other dump sites across Asia and the Pacific,” said Maureen Penjueli of Greenpeace “These people have been exposed to poisonous soils contaminated with PCBs for over a decade due to the negligence of the US agencies.” She also added that Tanapag’s contamination would have been illegal and unacceptable in mainland USA.

Electrical transformers containing PCB waste were dumped on the CNMI in the 1960s and have since contaminated the soil and leaked into the groundwater. Unaware that the transformers contained highly toxic chemicals, the islanders used them to make such things as boundaries for their baseball pitch. The most highly contaminated area in the territory is Tanapag, which the Attorney General’s Office identified as having PCB concentrations of 18 times above the federal limit in drinking water. Some soil here contains deadly levels of PCBs up to 25,000 times greater than the EPA’s recommendations, Greenpeace says.

According to the local newspaper, Saipan Tribune, a copy of the results of the preliminary investigation conducted by the CNMI’s Attorney General’s Office was sent to the US Attorney General, describing in detail violations of policies and federal laws committed by the Army Corps and the US EPA.

The investigation, headed by Assistant Attorney General, Murphy Peterson, indicated that the ACE may have committed perjury when it claimed that it had cleaned up areas which are still contaminated with PCBs. Greenpeace adds that the ACE failed to follow the EPA’s strict guidelines for disposing of PCBs, did no testing on fresh water sites, failed to inform locals, and ignored their fears over health concerns.

The ACE reportedly shipped some 1,094,000 pounds of thermally desorped PCB from Saipan for disposal at a hazardous waste facility in the US in September 1999, but have maintained that the PCB-contaminated soil could not be sent back to the U.S. mainland because of an import ban. Although another ACE clean-up is due imminently, again using indirect low thermal desorption, Greenpeace’s toxics expert, Dr. Darryl Luscombe, believes that the process is flawed because it only separates PCB from the soil but does not destroy it.

“You end up with something that is more hazardous, more toxic and more dangerous. The US Army Corps has not said anything about what they will do with concentrated PCBs. So it is not a complete process,” Luscombe said. He added that there should be a thorough testing conducted in the whole village since the groundwater contaminated with PCB may have not come from the only place the ACE are targeting – the cemetery.

An international treaty to eliminate persistent organic pollutants, such as PCBs, is currently being negotiated by more than 100 countries under the auspices of the United Nations but its progress is being hindered by a group of industrialised nations, including the US.

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