PAYMENT SOUGHT FOR SAIPAN PCB CONTAMINATION

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By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (Dec. 31, 1999 – Saipan Tribune)---Senate Floor Leader Pete P. Reyes yesterday urged the Attorney General's Office to begin legal steps to force the U.S. military to clean up the polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination in Tanapag as well as compensate residents suffering from the ill effects of the highly toxic chemicals.

He said the recent adoption of two resolutions by the Legislature is an "expression of disappointment of what's happening" that must be heeded by the Tenorio administration.

"I would like to see the governor instruct AG to begin filing lawsuits on behalf of the people of the Commonwealth," Mr. Reyes said in an interview.

At the same time, the senator dismissed the reported memorandum of understanding forged between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer and the CNMI that will map out a detailed work plan on how to address the environmental disaster.

"There's nothing new to it," he explained. "They will try to clean up the mess by phases and in the meantime, people are getting sick."

Mr. Reyes, who has been very vocal against the slow pace with which both the CNMI and the federal government have dealt with the contamination, maintained these measures are not enough to protect island residents.

"It appears to me that there's no urgency. If this has happened in California in Congressman (George) Miller's territory, there would be a mad rush to clean it up," he said.

"Because this is a Pacific island and thousands of miles away, they feel that we are expendable, that we could get sick," added the lawmaker.

The only way to draw immediate attention to the problem is to take the issue to court and let those responsible for it pay. "Anything short of litigation is not good enough," said Mr. Reyes.

The Senate last week adopted the resolution offered by Mr. Reyes asking government lawyers to file a lawsuit against the U.S. military to compensate victims, reimburse the CNMI and clean up Tanapag of PCBs and dioxin that were left behind in the 1960s.

In a separate move, the House of Representatives has sought an investigation to determine how much the island government has spent so far to mitigate the problem and provide medical care to those who have fallen sick due to exposure to the contamination.

Both resolutions, however, acknowledged the lack of efforts in dealing with the problem despite the discovery in 1988 by the Navy and the acceptance of responsibility by the Department of Defense in 1992.

PCBs and dioxins were found in electrical capacitors abandoned by the military during the 60's on the island, but Tanapag had received high concentrations of these dangerous chemicals, exposing its residents to various health and environmental risks.

A public hearing held two months ago in the village raised new concerns over the contamination, but authorities have yet to take concrete action to reduce the problem. So far, temporary measures have been implemented, such as closure of a cemetery, to protect residents.

The contamination in Tanapag, which has spread to the Lower Base Cemetery, has triggered new concern over public health and safety of the area from the island government, following complaints from residents.

Studies show PCBs cause cancer in animals and that people exposed to the chemical for a long time can experience nose, lung and skin irritation.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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