JOHNSTON ATOLL: THE LITTLE ISLAND THAT COULD

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By Kayla Rosenfeld Special to the Pacific Islands Report

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (May 30, 2000 - Hawai‘i Public Radio)---Johnston Atoll, located 800 miles southwest of Hawai‘i, has been home to about 6 percent of the United State’s chemical weapons stockpile. The rest is located at eight sites throughout the mainland U.S.

Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Congress ordered the Army to destroy its entire 31,000 tons of stockpile nationwide, including what’s on Johnston Island.

In the late 1980s, the Army built the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS) to destroy the weapons. Since beginning operations in 1990, the facility has destroyed about 1,800 tons of chemical agents and more than 380,000 munitions.

Its mission, however, is about to end.

In 1997, 130 nations, including the U.S., signed a treaty calling for the worldwide destruction of chemical weapons by 2007. When the Army shuts down JACADS in two years, it will be the first chemical agent disposal facility to close. Army officials hope JACADS will serve as a model for closing the remaining eight storage sites.

The Army must follow strict environmental protection guidelines while decommissioning the weapons stockpile and closing the JACADS facility.

Stacey Bray is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Project Manager for JACADS.

"The EPA is working with a variety of federal organizations to come to a common goal of how clean is clean, and how safe we can leave the island so humans and wildlife are safe," Bray said.

The military has been criticized in the past for not cleaning up its chemical weapons messes. But the Army wants to improve that negative reputation when it comes to cleaning up Johnston Atoll. Officials are encouraging public comment on the JACADS decommissioning process.

Gary McCloskey is JACADS Project Manger for the Chemical Demilitarization Program. He said the public can be involved in the closure by accessing the PMCD Web site (http://www-pmcd.apgea.army.mil/), filling out surveys, and by attending community meetings.

"We think that’s something we may not have done well in the beginning of the program," he said. "But we’re trying to end the program with a better basis of public knowledge and confidence that we are responsibly closing out the chemical weapons era in the Pacific."

In 1941, Johnston Atoll was bombed by the U.S. military. Then in the 1950s and 60s, it was used for nuclear testing. In the mid-70s, the Army used Johnston to store surplus Agent Orange from the Vietnam War.

Despite those environmental assaults, scientists from Boston University’s Marine Program said the island’s natural environment is still thriving.

"It’s actually an incredibly pristine ecosystem," said Dr. Philip Lobel, the program’s chief scientist. "So far, we haven’t been able to identify any ecologically deleterious effects or no real impacts."

"From an environmental investigation point of view, it’s been pretty disappointing," he added.

After JACADS shuts down, the Army will return Johnston Atoll to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which has been managing the island as a National Wildlife Refuge since 1926.

The island has continued to support schools of tropical fish, several coral reefs, and thousands of nesting seabirds.

Ranger Rob Schellenberger is coordinating the island’s final transition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "One of the challenges now is being smart enough to figure out what’s clean and what we need to do in terms of restoring habitat and remediation," he said.

"We have the potential of enhancing the habitat, but we need to do so without conflicting problems lingering on," he said.

When the Army closes JACADS in 2002, Johnston Island not only will be remembered as one of the oldest and most remote atolls in the world, but it will also be known as the little island that could: The island that could survive a quarter century of chemical weapons exposure and still be the only nesting area for seabirds within one million square miles of ocean.

For additional reports from Hawai‘i Public Radio, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Hawai‘i Public Radio or http://hawaiipublicradio.org

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