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By Mike Gordon

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (May 2, 2000 – The Honolulu Advertiser)---After being rejected by two West Coast ports, 110 tons of PCB-laden military waste may be heading for Johnston Island.

The waste, stored in 14 containers, has crossed the Pacific twice and now is on a U.S. Army dock in Yokohama, Japan.

Johnston Island is part of Johnston Atoll, an isolated group of reefs and small islands about 700 miles southwest of Honolulu. Johnston Island also is part of a national wildlife refuge overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The island is home to an Army facility to destroy chemical weapons, the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JCADS). The facility should be completed with its work and closed in January.

Though no official decision has been announced about the waste, wildlife service officials in Hawai‘i oppose using the small island to store the waste. But they said the situation is out of their control.

"The haste that surrounds this action worries me," said Robert P. Smith, Pacific Island Operations Manager for the wildlife service. "Has anyone given a lot of thought to the fact the PCBs are going to Johnston Island right at the beginning of the hurricane season? Will the wastes be contained in a manner where there is absolutely no chance that if there is a wave over wash that none of these chemicals will wash into the lagoon?

"PCBs in marine environments have very detrimental long-term effects to marine organisms.

Smith said the wildlife service has a subordinate role on Johnston but weighs in on military decisions that could affect the ecosystem on the 650-acre island.

Gerda Parr, spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency, said no decision has been made, but the military is looking for a temporary storage site. Johnston Island is one of the possible sites, she said.

"The people who are doing the negotiating and talking to the different countries, they do not want to disclose who they are talking to, because they don’t want to affect the outcome of the decisions," Parr said.

The garbage, collected from U.S. military bases in Japan, includes surplus electrical transformers, circuit breakers and other electrical equipment that contains traces of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, carcinogens that are hard to destroy. Their manufacture is banned in the United States.

Japan has a shortage of suitable storage area, and the container ship carrying the waste left Japan on March 23. It was supposed to unload in Vancouver, B.C., but Canadian officials said they would not allow it, and the ship went instead to Seattle. Dockworkers there also rejected the waste. The ship ultimately returned to Japan on April 18, where it may stay only 30 days.

The Army once stored 6.6 percent of its U.S. chemical munitions stockpile at Johnston Island, including the nerve gas Sarin, liquid VX and HD, or mustard gas. But in June 1990 the federal government fired up a powerful furnace to begin destroying millions of pounds of chemical weapons.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency oversees the permit to incinerate the chemical weapons, but apparently does not have the authority to keep waste off of Johnston Island, said David Schmidt, spokesman for the agency’s Pacific Southwest Region.

"We’re still in an information-gathering mode," Schmidt said.

"We are still trying to find out more about it. We don’t know exactly what the Department of Defense’s plan is. We want to know more."

Schmidt said the EPA would like to know more about the concentration of PCBs in the waste. The agency has requested documentation from the military, he said.

He said it is possible to store the waste safely. "Yes, certainly," he said. "It is done in a lot of places."

David Henkin, an attorney for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Honolulu, said military officials are trying to sneak the toxic cargo past the public.

"This seems to be happening in the cover of darkness, and that’s not the way it’s supposed to work," he said. "These are nasty, nasty chemicals we are talking about here."

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

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