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Marshall Islands Journal

January 4, 2002


Dear America: Like it or not, your delicate Marshall Islands nuclear legacy is back.

By Jack Niedenthal Trust Liaison for the People of Bikini

It is very hard for me at this point, after having lived and worked in the Republic of the Marshall Islands for the entire length of the Compact of Free Association -- from witnessing the campaign and plebiscite vote in 1983, to paying out and administering all of the funds given to the people of Bikini through to its conclusion this past year -- to sit back and say, Okay, the people here in the RMI have now been made whole by the United States. What the RMI received from the U.S. under the last Compact was woefully inadequate when one considers what happened out here…and what happens out here now. The U.S. still takes the RMI and its people for granted, and the U.S. still does not understand, nor do I think they truly care, about the legacy they have left behind here. It is a mistake to think, like I believe so many do at this juncture of the negotiating process, that the RMI has no bargaining footholds for this new Compact when it comes to nuclear issues.

The United States is still acting the same way toward the RMI as they did in 1946 -- as if they are the biggest bully on the block and answerable to nobody. The RMI government is being treated by the U.S. like a teenager holding his first set of car keys. The U.S. talks about all the funds they have given to the islanders who were affected by the nuclear testing as if these were giant sums of money. They were not. To get an adequate dollar picture of what it takes to legitimately wipe a nuclear slate clean, one has to compare what the U.S. has paid--and will pay--to attempt to clean the Hanford, Washington nuclear weapons manufacturing site in the United States (they have already spent $12 billion without even getting a shovel into the ground). The U.S. also just announced that the proposed Rocky Flats nuclear weapons manufacturing site cleanup will cost an estimated $7 billion. That’s billion with a "B." What have they spent on the Marshall Islands radiological cleanups so far? A mere peanut. That’s peanut with a "P."

The U.S., in 1983, thought they could settle the nuclear legacy in the RMI with a meager $150 million payment after turning the nuclear-affected atolls into a minority voting block. What a joke. The Bikinians thought it was such a great deal they voted 85% against the last Compact. 15 years later we are no closer to resolving these nuclear cleanup issues than we were in 1983.

The four nuclear bomb-affected atolls still are not clean, mainly because of the adoption by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, quite correctly, of the U.S. EPA standard of 15 millirem that is used when cleaning up former test sites and nuclear weapons manufacturing sites in the United States. The Bush administration last June reaffirmed these strict standards, much to the chagrin of the Nuclear Industry Institute that represents the nuclear industry in the United States.

In 1988, when the Bikinians got their $90 million resettlement trust fund that was based on a 100 millirem radiological cleanup standard, the cleanup of Bikini had to compete with our own social programs such as housing construction, scholarships and medical programs. The cleanup all but stalled when we learned of these much stricter EPA standards, which our trust fund simply could not even come close to covering.

What’s needed to help resolve these outstanding nuclear issues? A new, separate, major trust fund should specifically be designed for one purpose and one purpose only: To once and for all cleanup the radiological mess out here. I’m talking about an RMI Cleanup Superfund. A Superfund in nature just like the United States has for cleaning up chemical and radioactive wastes in their country. The scientific evidence and cost figures have already been presented to the Nuclear Claims Tribunal via the lawsuits brought by the 4 atolls. At the last negotiating session, the U.S. refused to even talk about these issues. They swept the RMI Changed Circumstances petition off the table like an unwanted chewing gum wrapper. It looked a lot like 1946 again, that attitude of "Who gives a damn about these people, we have places to go, bombs to drop, and other things to discuss." I’ll just say this, the promises made in 1946 by the U.S. government still ring like an uncracked Liberty Bell in the ears of the Bikinian people.

I believe the way the United States is currently treating the Marshall Islanders is very hypocritical to say the least. As I sat through the Compact negotiations last month in Honolulu, I heard the word "accountability" mentioned by the U.S. and the RMI negotiators over and over again. I have no problems with accountability; I think it is very important: indeed, accountability is essential for any government to succeed. But the U.S. often points to GAO (Government Accounting Office) reports about the RMI and their financial problems as if the U.S. holds the Golden Globe award for accountability. They don’t. I know why the U.S. Interior Department no longer has the ability to send and receive e-mail and why their web sites have all been shutdown back in Washington, D.C.: It is because their Bureau of Indian Affairs has mismanaged in the neighborhood of $10 billion in Native American Indian trust funds. Interior has had their online access privileges taken away because it was discovered by investigators that virtually any two-bit hacker could go into the U.S. Interior Department web sites and corrupt and manipulate data having to do with the Indian trust funds. Billions of dollars are still unaccounted for. Elouise Cobell, lead plaintiff in the litigation against the U.S. government in this matter, said, "It is disgusting and shameful that Secretary Norton and her predecessors have allowed this situation to exist. They're treating money that belongs to individual Indians -- some of the poorest people in this nation -- like it's a candy store."

But two wrongs have never made anything right or good for anyone. What does all of this accountability talk by both sides really boil down to for the islander sitting in the roadside coffee shop in Majuro? The reason why accountability is so important is because it gives people peace of mind when they know that their government is being fair to them. If there is no accountability, there will be no fairness and therefore no harmony because of the ensuing inevitable corruption, all of which usually translates into a new government. It has already happened once here in the RMI, and it could easily happen again. I just wish both sides would make this accountability dream come true for those of us who have to live here and not just pay it lip service as they both did during the first ten years of the last Compact.

The new U.S. postal system proposal for the upcoming Compact is an insult to the RMI. The RMI has young people serving in the U.S. military; the RMI is an integral component in the U.S. military’s missile defense system; the RMI served as the United States’ first nuclear proving ground: I agree with the Marshall Islands Journal when it said in their last issue that for all that this country has done for the U.S., the people of the RMI should get U.S. citizenship. What more do we have to do to prove that we are one of their staunchest allies in the Pacific? Having already dedicated our small pieces of land, and yes, even our people to further better the lives of U.S. citizens, is there something else we need to show the U.S. to reaffirm how closely linked our future is to theirs? And what do we get for these awesome, unprecedented sacrifices that, in the words of U.S. Commodore Ben Wyatt in 1946 when he asked the Bikinian people to leave their homeland, were "for the good of mankind" and to "end all world wars"? Sorry, RMI, you are no longer going to be part of the U.S. postal system. You are now going to be an international destination because the cost of keeping you in the U.S. postal system is too great. Give me a break: for the United States the cost of keeping us in their postal system is about the equivalent to the cost of firing 5 bullets into a tree in Afghanistan. A couple of million dollars a year to keep the RMI in the U.S. postal system is mere budget dust for the U.S. government. The RMI negotiators should demand that this new postal proposal go right into the garbage bin.

So what’s the overall solution for the RMI and the United States? We need to create more and bigger trust funds. Trust funds designed for accountability and to make people in the RMI self-sufficient: funds that let us build much needed infrastructure, have medical plans that actually take care of our people, allow us to better educate our people and to hire professionals to help us be accountable and to keep our legal system sound. The U.S. and their GAO never gives us credit for anything, but the Bikinians, for the most part, have done this already. If our model is studied closely, it can be bettered and made to work for others in the RMI.

For over half a century the United States has looked for the easy way out, or as my mother used to say, "the fast and wrong way" to get the RMI nuclear legacy once and for all swept under the carpet. The fact that we are still here with our unresolved dilemmas over 50 years and a Compact of Free Association later, should make the United States understand that this is not a commitment that can be bargained away for a certain number of dollars, a few thousand votes, and a couple of politician’s signatures. The commitment the U.S. government made in 1954 when it detonated the 15 megaton Bravo hydrogen bomb over the islands and citizens of the RMI was one that, just like the radiation, will last forever. For the people of the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ sake, I hope it doesn’t take America forever to finally find the wisdom and the compassion to understand this and right their remaining wrongs.

Jack Niedenthal *Trust Liaison for the People of Bikini

*Tourism Operations Manager for the Bikini Atoll Local Government *Vice-Chairman, Marshall Islands Social Security Administration Board

PO Box 1096 Majuro, MH 96960 Phone: (from U.S.) 011-692-625-3177 Fax: (from U.S.) 011-692-625-3330 E-mail: bikini@ntamar.com  Visit The Official Bikini Atoll Web Site at: http://www.bikiniatoll.com 

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