U.S. Navy Sued over Environmental Devastation Expected from Warlike Military Exercises on Mariana Islands

Thursday, August 04, 2016
Pagan Island (photo: Save Pagan Island)

By Nicholas Fillmore, Courthouse News Service


  (CN) — Northern Mariana Island conservation groups sued the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense over plans to conduct live-fire exercises on Tinian and Pagan in connection with a planned military buildup on Guam.


Part of the larger "pivot to the Pacific," some 5,000 U.S. Marines are slated to be relocated from Okinawa over the next decade and would train on the Mariana Islands to the north using artillery, mortars, rockets, amphibious assaults, attack helicopters and warplanes, and ship-to-shore naval bombardment.


Plaintiffs Tinian Island Women Association, Guardians of Gani, Paganwatch and Center for Biological Diversity claim, however, that the Navy violated the National Environmental Policy Act (pdf) by failing to evaluate all the impacts of the their plans in a single initial environmental impact statement.


Since the plan to move 5,000 Marines to Guam "triggered" a subsequent need for a training area, both impacts should have been considered in a single statement. Instead, the groups say, the Navy relied on separate, deficient assessments, which rest in turn on the larger matter of national security for their justification.


"The die is cast, the Navy has made a decision to move 5,000 Marines and their families to Guam without considering all the alternatives or whether Guam can absorb that many people in such a short time," said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, who along with Tinian-based attorney Kimberlyn King-Hinds represents the plaintiffs.


"We can't defer consideration of other places," Henkin said by phone.


The complaint, which asks the court to set aside the Navy's 2010 and 2015 environmental impact statements, claims that the Navy acknowledges that construction and operation of proposed training facilities on Tinian and Pagan would kill native wildlife — including endangered Mariana fruit bats — and destroy native forests and coral reefs.


The groups also claim that Tinian's population would be subjected to high-decibel noise, loss of 15 percent of the islands farmlands, destruction of cultural and historic sites, and severe restrictions to fishing grounds and beaches.


Additionally, families who had aspired to return to Pagan, an 18-square-mile island evacuated during volcanic eruptions in 1981, "would be forever banished from returning to their home island, which would be turned into a militarized wasteland," the groups say in the complaint.


According to an article in Scientific American, the dredging of Apra Harbor on Guam will result in the destruction of some 70 acres of coral reefs.


Greg Kuntz, deputy public affairs officer at Joint Region Marianas, said that he could not comment now that the matter had gone to litigation except to say that the Navy is committed to completing a revised environmental impact statement as well as working within National Environmental Policy Act guidelines. The Navy has already agreed to cut the relocated Marine contingent by half, from 10,000, though the groups say that the scope and destructiveness of training has only increased.


Members of Tinian Women's Association, a nonprofit organization that speaks for Tinian's women and children and is dedicated to the preservation of Chamorro culture, have handed out flyers and submitted comments during the Navy's environmental review. In a press statement, association member Florine Hofschneider said, "We refuse to accept the Navy's plan to subject our children to nearly constant bombardment."


Such military training poses "an existential threat" to The Guardians of Gani­ and others who advocate a return to "a more traditional, productive and fulfilling lifestyle," the groups say in the complaint.


"The Guardians and their members view Gani [islands north of Saipan] as the last frontier to revive their traditions and culture."


They want a federal judge to find that the Navy and Department of Defense violated federal laws by relying on environmental reviews, and to vacate the decision to relocate the Marines to Guam.


Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus are also named as defendants.


The United States invaded the Mariana Islands in 1944 and fought Japanese forces in Saipan and Guam. The Enola Gay took off from Tinian in 1945 with the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.


The Northern Mariana Islands were administered by the United States after World War II following a United Nations Security Council resolution. They became a commonwealth of the United States in 1975.


To Learn More:

U.S. Agrees to Minor Payment for Navy’s Damage to Philippine World Heritage-Listed Coral Reef Park (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Pacific Islanders Ask U.S. Military to not Use Pagan Island for Target Practice (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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