‘Poisoning the Pacific’: New Book Describes the Military Contamination of Islands...

In 1968, Leroy Foster was a US Air Force sergeant assigned to Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, an island area in the United States in the Pacific. The day after arriving on the island, he recalled being ordered to “mix diesel fuel with Agent Orange” and then “spray a truck all over the base to kill the jungle overgrowth”.

Soon after, Foster suffered severe skin conditions and eventually developed Parkinson’s and ischemic heart disease. Later, his daughter had cancer as a teenager and his grandson was born with 12 fingers, 12 toes, and a heart murmur. Foster died in 2018.

A new book, Poisoning the Pacific, due to be released Monday, reports on decades of US military contamination of indigenous areas as well as the ocean, threatening life and ecosystems in the vast Pacific.

Poisoning the Pacific was written by British journalist Jon Mitchell and is based on more than 12,000 pages of documents obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and through interviews with local residents, military veterans, and researchers.

The book argues that the U.S. has been negligent in its areas in the Pacific for decades, allowing its military to violate indigenous rights, seize land, and damage fragile ecosystems.

US military aircraft parked on the tarmac at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam Island, a US Pacific Territory.

US military aircraft parked on the tarmac at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam Island, a US Pacific Territory. Photo: Erik de Castro / Reuters

In addition to Foster’s case – after years of campaigning, the aviator was ultimately compensated for his exposure on the island – Mitchell’s book describes the US military operations over decades that contaminated the Pacific with toxic substances such as radioactive waste, nerve agents and the dioxin-contaminated agent orange.

“The US authorities have repeatedly tried to cover up the contamination through lies, disinformation and attacks on reporters,” Mitchell told The Guardian. “I experienced this pressure firsthand.”

Mitchell’s books document several attempts by the US State and Defense departments to block his work. A FOIA file showed that Mitchell was under surveillance by the U.S. Marine Corps Criminal Investigation Department. The document included his photo, biography, and an account of a lecture he gave in Okinawa on military contamination.

“The colleagues warned me not to continue my investigation. What particularly motivated me to keep filing FOIAs and searching for evidence was the very real impact of my research on veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Okinawa, ”he said.

“My coverage has helped these sick men and women receive compensation from the US government. Investigative journalism is ultimately a job that should help people who have been ill-treated get the justice they deserve. ”

The poisoning of the Pacific describes the ongoing environmental damage and the risk to human health.

The ‘Dome’ on Runit Island in the Marshall Islands – a sovereign nation in a treaty of free association with the US – is a massive concrete grave in which the US has stored more than 70,000 m3 of radioactive waste, including plutonium-239, left over from US nuclear testing after the war. Irradiated soil from Nevada was also transported and dumped on the island.

The dome is leaking radioactive material into the sea, the US Department of Energy admits, although the amount is not dangerous. Successive US administrations have declared that the dome is the responsibility of the Marshall Islands. The United States has paid more than $ 600 million to affected communities in relocation, rehabilitation, and radiation-related healthcare costs.

The book documents “the disposal of 29 million kilograms of mustard and nerve agents and 454 tons of radioactive waste by the US Army” in the Pacific Ocean and the use of nerve agents, including sarin, by the US military, according to US government documents confirm leaked into the environment while it was about to be destroyed on Johnston Atoll near Hawaii.

At nine locations that stretched from Johnston Atoll in the Pacific to Edgewood, Maryland, the US Army held 31,280 tons of mustard and the nerve agents sarin and VX.

At nine locations that stretched from Johnston Atoll in the Pacific to Edgewood, Maryland, the US Army held 31,280 tons of mustard and the nerve agents sarin and VX. Photo: Ronen Zilberman / AP

The debate about the use of potentially deadly herbicides has been hotly contested.

After the Second World War, around five thousand barrels of Agent Purple – a precursor to the Agent Orange herbicide – were transported and stored in Guam.

Although the Department of Defense has consistently claimed that the herbicide supply on the island was never used, service personnel stationed there claimed they sprayed and dumped military waste, including damaged herbicide barrels, over Guam’s cliffs.

Researchers, including the Department of Public Health and Social Services in Guam, reported in 2015 that villages suspected of being sprayed with herbicides were more likely to die of infant deaths from birth defects.

When investigating allegations of herbicide use in Guam in 2017, the US government itself came into conflict: the Department of Defense reported soil tests found no herbicides, the Environmental Protection Agency reported the opposite.

The health and environmental impacts on Guam reflect the impacts experienced by residents and U.S. soldiers in Okinawa, Japan, where the U.S. has maintained a base for decades and where Mitchell began reporting.

In 2005, the US signed a treaty with Japan to move thousands of US Marines from Okinawa to Guam. Okinawans have consistently spoken out against the US military presence on the island and have harmed their health and the environment.

Some progress has been made, albeit limited. Guam Senators have endorsed bills for adding the territory to the veteran list of Agent Orange deployments. In March 2019, a bill named after Lonnie Kilpatrick, a service member who fell ill with Guam and died, approved compensation for 52,000 veterans exposed to herbicides in three areas of the U.S. Pacific – Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll.

But even in 2020, indigenous voices will always go unheard, argues Mitchell. When dozens of sites containing human remains and cultural artefacts were discovered during military excavations in Guam in July, local residents – especially the indigenous Chamorro – were appalled. Despite the concerns fueling a growing movement to demilitarize the Pacific, the newest U.S. Marine Corps base – the first new base in nearly 70 years – officially opened earlier this month.

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