PRESSURE BACK ON U.S. ARMY IN SAIPAN PCB CASE

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By Jojo Dass

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (January 3, 2000 - Marianas Variety/PINA Nius Online)---A full risk assessment of the contamination of Tanapag may finally be ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency in connection with the cleanup of the coastal Northern Marianas Islands village. This follows a high level Washington, D.C., meeting that highlighted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ failure to comprehensively implement the undertaking.

"I think we did a very good job of presenting our case," said Assistant Attorney General, Murphy Peterson, the Northern Marianas' lone representative to the meeting. It was attended by some 40 Environmental Protection Agency and other federal officials.

"We brought forth the issue," added Peterson.

Peterson said the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to issue a decision based on the meeting. However, he gave assurances that the Attorney General's Office would pursue the case depending on how the Environmental Protection Agency acts on the issue. The decision, said Peterson, is expected in two weeks.

The Attorney General's Office has said it plans to file a lawsuit against the federal agencies over the Tanapag contamination.

"The comments of the Environmental Protection Agency and their action will determine which direction we are (going to pursue) at this point," said Peterson.

(PCBs are cancer-causing man-made chemicals. There has been continuing controversy over their presence in the Tanapag area and their effects on local people. The United States Department of Defense used PCBs in a radar station in the area in the 1960s.)

Peterson said the Army Corps of Engineers’ claim that the Northern Marianas government is partly to be blamed for the PCB contamination and that Tanapag villagers stole the PCB capacitors to use as home fixtures failed to convince the officials present at the meeting. Peterson said the Army Corps failed to present enough evidence.

Peterson said he was able to stress in the meeting the need for the Environmental Protection Agency to include in its order to the Army Corps a directive to conduct a full risk assessment and a "characterization" of the contaminants in the village. This is to determine the cumulative effects of the residents’ exposure to the toxic waste and the appropriate clean-up method.

The Army Corps has persistently maintained that such actions were not needed, explaining that appropriate tests have been done which revealed only low PCB concentration in land crabs and root crops.

The Army Corps, according to the Attorney General's Office, has not determined the presence of other contaminants, like hydrocarbon from abandoned World War II fuel tanks, and dioxin in the village food sources.

Moreover, Peterson said he argued in the meeting that the samples were taken from areas with little or no PCB concentration at all.

"If you were just exposed to the land crabs, would that be dangerous to you? If you were just exposed to the taro, would that be dangerous? Maybe if you were just exposed to the taro alone, you would not be in that much of danger, but if you were exposed to taro, yam, land crabs, fish, which everybody eats, then you look at it as a whole.

"That is what they (the Army Corps officials) have not done," Peterson said.

Peterson also cited a Tanapag pigpen site at which the Army Corps had conducted tests. The soil around the pen yielded high PCB concentration, he said, adding that the Army Corps allegedly did not test the actual pigpens.

Peterson furthermore said he urged the Environmental Protection Agency officials at the Washington meeting to direct the Army Corps to conduct full "characterization" of the contaminants in Tanapag, explaining that the presence of dioxin and hydrocarbon renders the planned thermal remediation approach by the Army Corps for the clean-up useless.

"We pointed out that we were trying to prevent (the Army Corps) from wasting money," said Peterson, explaining that a thermal remediation procedure, which burns the PCB, will leave other contaminants unaffected.

The Washington D.C. meeting was a follow-up to a September 19 administrative order issued by the Environmental Protection Agency to the Army Corps.

Peterson said the Army Corps was "very much upset" about the directive, which orders it to conduct a full clean up of the village, and has appealed it.

Peterson said that it was only upon the Attorney General's Office's persistent insistence that the Northern Marianas government was allowed to attend last week’s meeting.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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