SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands — Tom Pangelinan pushes his way through the tall swordgrass and scraggly trees. There’s no path to get to the rusted fuel tank that towers over him. Bright green vines creep up a ladder leading up to its roof.
Pangelinan gestures to a dark line of oil seeping out of the tank, one of dozens scattered in villages on the island of Saipan in the Western Pacific. Most are within a 10-minute drive of the island’s main tourist district.
“You can still smell it,” he says.
The tank used to hold thousands of gallons of fuel, but after decades of neglect all that’s left is oil sludge mixed with rainwater.
The Navy abandoned 42 of these tanks more than 50 years ago. Most have corroded and collapsed, their contents seeping into the ground. Six of the most hazardous were removed in 2006, but remnants of others still lie in the jungles behind people’s houses, sharp metal mixing with fallen trees and dirt and vines.
Pangelinan, 25, grew up on Saipan and is now part of a hazardous waste team in the local government that works with the federal government to clean up old Department of Defense training and storage sites like the abandoned tanks, known as the Tanapag Fuel Farm.
He’s got a lot of work to do. Saipan, at less than 45 square miles, is not even one-twelfth the size of Kauai. But it’s often been the site of military training, even serving as a secret CIA outpost to train Chinese nationalists during the Cold War.
The Navy fuel farm is among many sites that the military abandoned, leaving toxic chemicals and munitions to litter the island for decades.
Saipan also has millions of pounds of unexploded bombs, artillery shells, grenades, bullets and other munitions left over from a gruesome three-week battle between the U.S. and Japan during World War II.
Neighboring islands of Guam, Tinian and Pagan face the same problem.
And it’s about to get much worse.
What The Military Plans
The Department of Defense wants to dramatically ramp up its presence in the Mariana Islands, a 15-island archipelago in the Western Pacific. The southernmost island is Guam, nearly 4,000 miles away from Hawaii, with some 160,000 residents.
But that sparked protests on Guam and a lawsuit was filed by local community groups and National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Department of Defense decreased the number of Marines moving to Guam to about 5,000, with the rest of the Marines moving to Hawaii and Australia. The new plan is expected to cost $8.7 billion, with Japan contributing $3 billion.
The military buildup in the Mariana Islands is also part of President Barack Obama’s 2011 strategy of focusing on the Asia-Pacific, an announcement widely seen to be in response to China’s increasing aggression.
Pete Perez, who grew up on Guam but now lives on Saipan, fears that military buildup could irrevocably harm the environment and economy while erasing archeological sites that document its history.
“It’s a threat to our very existence,” Perez says.
In addition to building a Marine Corps base on Guam, the Department of Defense plans to build an airfield on Tinian, set up bombing ranges on Pagan and Tinian and use a wildlife refuge in northern Guam as a buffer for a training range that supports .50 caliber weapons.
The Navy recently doubled the area around the Mariana Islands where it has permission to conduct undersea sonar and explosive training and testing. The Navy says the expansion merely takes into account the areas where ships train while in transit.
But some environmentalists fear the Navy is underestimating how its activities are harming whales and dolphins because there’s relatively little data on the marine mammals that live around the Marianas.
From a purely strategic perspective, increasing training makes sense. Located about a three-hour flight from Tokyo, the Mariana Islands are the closest sovereign land to Asia and the last opportunity for soldiers, Marines and airmen to train on U.S. soil before they are deployed west.
The Department of Defense already has Navy and Air Force bases on Guam, and has been using the island of Farallon de Medinilla for bombing practice for decades.
Recently, China has been building artificial islands in the South China Sea, sparking concerns from neighboring countries like the Philippines and Japan. North Korea has been testing nuclear weapons and has even listed Guam as a target.
But the Mariana Islands are also home to a predominantly low-income Pacific Islander and Asian community, some of whom fear that the bombing ranges would destroy their land and their livelihoods.
Environmental Harm Inevitable
That there will be some damage to the islands’ environment if thousands of troops ramp up war games in the region is unquestioned. It’s just a matter of to what degree and whether the value of the military buildup is worth it.
The Navy outlined the potential damage from the two proposed bombing ranges in its 2015 environmental impact statement. Federal and local agencies, organizations and individuals submitted about 30,000 comments criticizing the Navy’s analysis and listing numerous other potential harms.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns that the Navy’s plans could pollute the aquifer on Tinian, the only source of groundwater for the island’s 3,100 residents.
The EPA says a plan to add a base camp on Tinian, which would include headquarters and barracks among other facilities, would also strain the limits of the existing public water system.
More than 10 acres of high-quality coral reef on Tinian would also be destroyed in amphibious landing exercises, with another 10 acres of coral reef indirectly impacted. The EPA says the Navy hasn’t put forth adequate proposals to mitigate that harm.
The increased military activity would also harm a National Historic Landmark that marks the site where the Enola Gay took off to bomb Hiroshima. It would destroy historic sites including a peace memorial built by Navy Seabees in 1945, and jeopardize indigenous Chamorro latte stones dating back hundreds of years.
On Pagan, amphibious training exercises would also damage threatened coral. Bombing would be even more intense than on Tinian, involving Navy ships firing weapons at the northern part of the island.
There’s no infrastructure on Pagan to support a permanent town. But while a 1981 volcanic eruption forced residents to flee the island, small groups of people have been living on the island for months at a time and fear the bombing would make it impossible for them to continue to do so.
In comments to the Navy, the commonwealth’s late Gov. Eloy Inos called the plans for Tinian and Pagan an “existential threat to our tourism-driven economy, our fragile ecosystem, our cultural resources, and indeed our way of life.” He died in January, and his successor, Gov. Ralph Torres, also believes the bombing ranges are a bad idea.
There’s also a feeling of betrayal among some residents. In exchange for U.S. citizenship and federal funding, the islanders gave the U.S. a 50-year lease, with the option of a 50-year extension, on the uninhabited island of Farallon de Medinilla for bombing practice.
The U.S. also got a similar lease for two-thirds of Tinian, where residents expected that a base would be built and provide economic benefits.
The base never happened. Instead, after decades of bombing, the Department of Defense is tripling the number of explosives dropped on Farallon de Medinilla annually and planning highly destructive training on Tinian that even the business community opposes because it would harm agriculture and tourism.
Esther Kiaaina, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, has been leading talks between the CNMI government and top national security officials since June that will culminate in a report to President Barack Obama this month. The report is supposed to go next to Congress.
It’s unclear whether the Republican-controlled Congress would listen to the commonwealth’s concerns, given that their only representative is a Democrat and doesn’t even have a vote.
President-elect Donald Trump’s commitment to the buildup in the Marianas is also up in the air, although he has indicated he will invest more money in military bases and promised U.S. island territories during his campaign that he will not ignore them.
Meanwhile, on Guam, the buildup has been fueling the local sovereignty movement. Some commonwealth residents are also questioning whether it was a good idea for the islands to join the U.S. back in 1976. CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres recently signed a bill to establish a political status commission to reevaluate the territory’s relationship with the U.S.
In response to widespread criticism of its proposals for Tinian and Pagan, the Navy is conducting additional studies and is expected to publish its next environmental analysis this coming spring. A final decision would be issued in the summer of 2018.
Lt. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield, deputy commander for U.S. Pacific Command, says that the increase in training in the Mariana Islands is part of the broader strategy of shifting Department of Defense forces to the region, known as the Asia-Pacific rebalance.
“In particular, the Marine Corps needs places to train to maintain readiness,” Crutchfield says. He adds that the Pacific Command has been listening to the community’s concerns and is planning to propose two new training alternatives for Tinian and Pagan in the next environmental analysis.
Local Opposition Builds
But the community isn’t waiting for the Navy to change its mind. Local organizations have joined with national environmental groups Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity to sue the Navy to prevent the training from happening.
The lawsuit argues that the Navy violated environmental laws by splitting up its training plans into several separate proposals. The Navy also didn’t consider any locations outside the Marianas for the training within its environmental analysis.
If successful, the lawsuit could stop the Guam buildup as well as the aggressive training plans on Pagan and Tinian.
That would be good news to Leevin Camacho, an attorney and activist on Guam.
On a recent morning, he parked his truck by the side of the road and led the way through a broken fence along a muddy path that ended at an empty, unmarked lookout.
Below the cliff’s edge, a large swath of forest spread out until it met the gray-blue Pacific Ocean. A single farm broke up the expanse of green trees that make up Pagat, a popular hiking spot and site of an ancient Chamorro village.
If you hike down for about an hour, you’ll find traditional Chamorro latte stones, which were built hundreds of years ago to hold up houses, as well as fishing tools and other cultural resources, Camacho says.
“Just imagine standing there at the cliff and someone saying, ‘It’s really great but guess what guys, you can’t go down there because there’s all this unexploded ordnance,'” Camacho says.
Camacho grew up in an Army family but believes Guam has already sacrificed too much of its environment for national defense.
The Air Force already contaminated part of the island’s aquifer, according to the EPA.
And the Department of Defense already uses more than a fourth of the land on Guam, an island that’s significantly smaller than Oahu.
Camacho and other Guam activists fought hard to prevent Pagat from being turned into a training range for large-caliber weapons.
After they filed a lawsuit challenging the proposal, the Navy backed off. But it was a bittersweet victory.
The Navy instead got a congressional exemption allowing it to put the training range in North Field next to a wildlife refuge.
Now, Camacho says, he’s part of a minority of Guam residents who still oppose the buildup. Many people believe the increased military presence will help the island’s economy.
Camacho hasn’t been actively involved in protesting the plans for Pagan and Tinian but he’s sympathetic to that cause.
He says splitting up the proposals about what the Department of Defense wants to do and forcing people read multiple long and detailed environmental studies makes it hard to understand the big picture.
But Camacho thinks he can see what’s coming, and to him it doesn’t look good.
“The next couple of years are probably going to be a watershed moment for the Marianas as a whole,” he says.
Legacy Of Contamination
The tourist district on Saipan spans just a few blocks, mostly a mix of mom-and-pop stores and seedy-looking massage parlors. Hotels line the beach, their names switching every few years as some investors pull out and new ones come in.
Sidewalks are sporadic, and abandoned buildings are sandwiched between hotels and retail establishments. The economy crashed after the island’s garment factory industry collapsed and the population shrank from nearly 70,000 in 2000 to less than 54,000 in 2010.
The community has been clinging to tourism as a main source of revenue. Locals worry the bombing practice planned for Tinian would discourage visitors and bring an end to the territory’s visa waiver program with China and Russia, which allows tourists from those countries to visit the commonwealth for short periods of time.
But Ignacio Cabrera, the former head of the commonwealth’s hazardous waste division, is more worried about the impact on the land and the ocean.
He sits in a café on the edge of Saipan’s tourist district across the street from a national park honoring American soldiers who died on the island during a brutal three-week battle in the summer of 1944.
Cabrera points to a map of the Mariana Islands in a binder he brought. It’s filled with pages describing the marine national monument that former President George W. Bush established around the northernmost islands in the CNMI.
The monument was hailed nationally as a significant environmental accomplishment for Bush. But it was an unpopular decision in the Marianas, where many still feel that it was an overreach of federal power.
Cabrera was one of its few local supporters. Now he finds it ironic and frustrating that the federal government wants to add bombing ranges just south of islands that Bush protected for their biological diversity.
Cabrera says opposition to the military’s plans is based on experience. “We don’t want to make the same mistakes,” he says.
He remembers getting a call in 1986 from a teacher working at a Head Start preschool in Tanapag, a small village on the northern side of Saipan, who said she saw a leaking ceramic container outside the school.
The substance turned out to be polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, which were banned by the EPA in 1979 as cancer-causing. The sale and manufacture of PCBs has been prohibited since then.
In 1972, the Department of Defense had given numerous ceramic capacitors to Tanapag residents. But they didn’t understand the potential health risks.
Fifty capacitors — each 4 feet long, 18-inches in diameter, and weighing around 500 pounds — were used to mark boundaries between homes, along the beach, by the road and near a church and cemetery.
Cabrera even remembers a Little League team using a barbecue on top of one.
The subsequent $20 million EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cleanup treated 40,000 tons of contaminated soil around the preschool, people’s homes, in a local cemetery and by the village church.
Residents were warned against eating land crabs, a local delicacy, for about five years, because testing discovered PCBs in the crabs.
A 2004 federal public health assessment concluded that the PCBs didn’t harm public health, but Cabrera still worries about it. It was tough to get federal money to clean up the capacitors, and the cleanup took many years to finish.
The high cost and difficulty of restoring former defense sites is a nationwide problem. It would cost billions of dollars to clean up former training ranges across the U.S.
In Hawaii alone, an estimated $1.7 billion would be needed to restore all formerly used defense sites, according to data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Compared to Hawaii, the estimated cost of cleaning up former training sites on Guam and the CNMI is small — only about $165 million.
But the environmental harm is concentrated in a very small area, and compounded by the prevalence of munitions and hazardous waste left over from World War II battles.
And when it comes to funding for former defense training sites, Walter Leon Guerrero has much to be frustrated about. He’s in charge of Guam’s local environmental department.
A 2002 report from the Government Accountability Office found that Guam wasn’t getting as much money as other states and territories to clean up old military training sites. The national average funding rate was 16 percent, compared to Guam’s 4 percent. Even though it’s been 15 years since then, Guam’s funding has barely improved.
Helene Takemoto, who works at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Honolulu, says the Corps gets between $12 million and $15 million every year that has to be split up amongst Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam and the CNMI. Hawaii has the biggest demand for funding, with the former Waikoloa training range expected to cost $723 million alone to clean up.
The Department of Defense has also been prioritizing restoration of sites classified as “hazardous, toxic and radioactive,” aiming to clean up most of them by 2021, and the commonwealth has more of these than Guam.
But during a meeting at his office in Mangilao in central Guam, Leon Guerrero was exasperated by the difficulty of competing with Hawaii and other areas to obtain money for cleaning up old defense sites. Guam has received less than $12 million to clean up former training sites compared with more than $43 million spent in the commonwealth.
He says he asked Honolulu and national U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials in a recent meeting to stop ignoring Guam. He says he’s hopeful the funding levels will go up.
The Corps estimates that Guam still needs at least $113 million to clean up its former training sites, and the commonwealth needs more than $51 million.
But that only takes into account the sites that the military has agreed to restore. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between former battle sites and training sites. Recently, white phosphorus washed up on Guam beaches, and the Guam EPA found ordnance stacked up just 90 feet below sea level, near Camel Rock in Asan, a popular dive spot on Guam.
Although dropping ordnance into the ocean was an acceptable way of disposing of material after the war, munitions were supposed to be left no less than 300 feet undersea, Leon Guerrero says.
Getting the responsible agency to spend the money to go and make the assessment is a challenge, he says. If the munitions were abandoned during the war, the federal government doesn’t have a legal obligation to take care of it, and so far, he says, the Navy doesn’t think the Asan site qualifies for clean-up funds.
So sunken tanks dot the island’s lagoon, and bombs are sometimes unearthed during construction. Parents warn their kids against picking up metal objects when they play in the jungle because they could explode. Soil is contaminated with mercury and lead.
There’s no data available on how much old ordnance is left over from the war, let alone a comprehensive effort to get rid of it.
The Navy does help in emergencies, responding to about 200 calls per year in the CNMI and Guam of problems from the old munitions.
The commonwealth’s local police force is trained in how to respond to the discovery of ordnance, and every year soldiers from Guam fly to Saipan to help detonate bombs. That costs about $20,000 per trip.
Is The Buildup Worth Environmental Damage?
John Castro, a former Pagan resident, worries that if the new bombing ranges on Tinian and Pagan are created, the intensity of training will render both islands uninhabitable.
The potential to contaminate Tinian’s aquifer and the dangers posed by more unexploded ordnance are the biggest threats.
But there are many more, according to the Navy’s environmental impact study. The training will destroy more than 1,800 acres of forest habitat, including 900 acres of conservation land that are home to the Tinian monarch, a formerly endangered bird.
Amphibious training on beaches could prevent sea turtles from nesting, hurt endangered coral that’s already under stress from climate change and destroy traditional fishing grounds.
The Navy says it will limit training to 16 weeks per year on Pagan and 20 weeks annually on Tinian. But the Navy has also considered the possibility of training for 40 weeks per year on Pagan and 45 weeks annually on Tinian, raising fears locally that the islands could become war zones year-round.
Environmental and historic preservation advocates derided the Navy’s analysis for its general ambiguity and lack of data.
Attorneys hired by the CNMI government pointed out in official comments that there doesn’t appear to be a plan for ridding Pagan of hazardous waste associated with training, or mitigating the impacts of the training.
Still, some commonwealth residents like Dave Sablan support the proposed bombing ranges despite the potential for environmental harm.
Sablan was just 12 years old when he hid in a cave during the American invasion of Saipan, at the time a Japanese territory.
It was World War II, and like thousands of other indigenous Chamorro people, Sablan was caught in between American and Japanese forces. He remembers it like it was yesterday.
“We were in the cave for three weeks and all we had was sugar cane to munch on,” he says.
Every couple of days, one or two men would sneak out of the cave to the sugar cane fields to bring back more stalks for the more than a dozen people hiding with Sablan.
One day Americans saw the men heading back to the cave. Three Marines went to investigate, and heard the sound of a baby crying.
Sablan and his family surrendered peacefully. He remembers the leader of the three Marines gave him his rifle to carry as they walked down the hill to safety.
“I am forever thankful for what the military has done to save our lives during the war,” says Sablan, who is now 84 years old and a successful businessman on Saipan. “I have lived through the war and I’ve seen some of the ugliness of war and I don’t want to see it again.”
But there’s also a strong feeling among other islanders that between Farallon de Medinilla and the northern two-thirds of Tinian, the commonwealth has given the military enough land.
On a recent afternoon, Castro helps unload a friend’s boat at a dock in Saipan before chewing betel nut under a pine tree on a sandy beach. It’s a cloudy day but the late afternoon sun is still hot.
Castro grew up on Saipan, but visits Pagan periodically and stays there for several months. He’s part of a transient population that’s gone back and forth since the permanent settlement was destroyed by a volcanic eruption.
He loves life on Pagan — fishing and farming, catching lobster and living off the land.
Many people who grew up on Saipan have moved to the U.S. mainland for better jobs and education, but Castro feels connected to the land.
Growing up, his grandmother taught him to recognize Chamorro medicinal plants, and how to weave baskets in the traditional way.
In the last few years, he’s been learning about traditional Micronesian seafaring, and recently finished a 40-day canoe voyage to Palau.
The military’s plans worry him because the environment is so closely tied to his culture and the traditions and life he wants to pass down to his children.
With the rapid modernization of the Mariana Islands, he sees the traditional culture being lost as development increases. With its undeveloped environment, Pagan is a place where Chamorros like him can reconnect with their roots.
“You feel the presence of i animas, our spiritual ancestors,” he says. “You feel it up there.”
While the military doesn’t own any land on Pagan, Congress could obtain it through eminent domain. The territory wouldn’t have a vote on that issue.
And because the military already leases land in Tinian, it’s unclear whether the buildup can be stopped.
But Juanita Mendiola is trying. Mendiola was born and raised on Tinian and moved back in 1992 after spending a few years away for school and work. She joined the lawsuit filed by Earthjustice as one of its plaintiffs.
Sitting at a picnic table outside one of the island’s three hotels, she explains that Tinian residents gave up their land to the U.S. because they thought a base would be built and that would bring economic benefits.
“Not like this plan,” she says. “This is total destruction.”
Brian Turner, an attorney at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, says the undercurrent of environmental injustice is clear.
“If this sort of thing were proposed in North Carolina or something, it just never would happen,” he says. “You get the sense with a highly destructive project that naturally the military would be kind of interested in outsourcing that to a place that people don’t really know about.”
Jim Keany, director of biological resources at the Environmental Science Associates, a national environmental consulting firm, says that the Navy’s proposed plans for training on Pagan and Tinian are vastly subpar compared with Navy plans he’s seen in Puget Sound, for instance, where there are numerous stakeholders and more environmental activists who would lend a critical eye to the project.
”I think they were thinking that they have a lower threshold to meet out there than in a state with the … resources to bring to the table,” Keany says of the Navy.
Keany has analyzed the military’s proposals as a consultant for Matthew Adams, an environmental attorney at the Washington D.C.-based firm Dentons. The CNMI government was able to hire Adams thanks to a grant from the Department of Interior.
Adams describes the commonwealth as one of the poorest, most isolated and least well-represented entities in the U.S.
“This is the paradigm of an environmental justice issue,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine a more environmentally impactful project than a war zone.”