SAIPAN – EPA Region 9 has agreed to prohibit open detonation of chemical, radiological, and biological munitions that might be found on Saipan, the largest island and capital of the United States Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a chain of 15 tropical islands in the western Pacific Ocean. The prohibition is the direct result of intervention by concerned community members. The designated detonation area is located on Marpi Point, a public lands property on Saipan that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. CNMI plans to clear nearby tropical rain forest lands and grant them to over 500 indigenous individuals and families for new homesteads.
The final hazardous waste permit will still allow the CNMI Department of Public Safety to collect and detonate millions of pounds of WWII munitions that threaten the environment and the safety of its residents. The majority of unexploded and abandoned ordnance, including artillery shells, grenades and bullets are found on virtually all of the islands of the CNMI. They are attributed to the United States and Japanese battle for Saipan and the U.S. build-up for the attacks on the Japanese mainland. The permit for Saipan is expected to serve as a model for other islands including Tinian and Rota.
Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger (CSWAB) submitted detailed written comments with support from local residents of Saipan which resulted in permit conditions that will “categorically prohibit” open burning or detonation of munitions wastes containing chemical warfare agent, biological warfare material, radiological hazardous wastes, and chemical agent contaminated media.
The U.S. EPA did not agree to ban open burning and detonation of smoke-filled and incendiary munitions. CSWAB argued that detonation of munitions containing systemic poisons such as white phosphorus (used for signaling, screening, and incendiary purposes) disperses minute phosphorus particles over a large area. White phosphorus is highly toxic to waterfowl and may be magnified up the food chain. Contamination in various fish tissues has been shown to be toxic or lethal if ingested.
CSWAB agreed with EPA that there is an urgent need to immediately retrieve and safely treat munitions wastes found at Saipan but said that the remedy should not cause further contamination of the environment. Open burning and open detonation have, by definition, no pollution controls and cause the uncontrolled release of toxic emissions and particulates to the surrounding land and sea.
EPA acknowledged that there are alternatives technologies that do not pose the same risks to the environment but contended that CNMI’s resources for cleanup of unexploded ordnance found throughout the island are limited. The hazards of leaving them in place where they can accidentally detonate when people find them are far greater than the hazards of open detonation, EPA said. Officials also argued that the situation at Saipan is unique because there is no U.S. military presence on the island territory. The local government has volunteered to address an issue that it did not create, EPA added.
In early April, the EPA announced a total of $400,000 in Brownfields grants to CNMI. The CNMI Division of Environmental Quality will receive $200,000 to continue assessment of hazardous substance sites and support community outreach activities. Another $200,000 will be provided to the CNMI Department of Public Lands for the cleanup of WWII unexploded ordnance on the northern end of Saipan.
Munitions that were disposed offshore in Saipan also pose a hazard to the public. EPA said that the CNMI government hopes to survey and inventory submerged munitions in the near future.