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By Mark-Alexander Pieper

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Feb. 12) - Tiyan cliffside landowners who live in former military housing units may have more to worry about than losing their property.

A Feb. 3 letter from Federal Highway Administration Honolulu Division Administrator Abraham Wong raises concerns about potential health hazards in the area.

The letter chastised the local government for returning former military land that was returned on the condition that it be used to build a highway to previous landowners. In the letter, Wong said a revocation of the return of military lands and the withholding of federal funds is possible.

But he also raised concerns about some previous landowners using the old military housing units as residential space.

"(It) is not only a violation of the terms of the deed, but also may constitute a health hazard due to hazardous substances and/or other contaminants or pollutants that may be present," Wong wrote in the letter.

The quitclaim deed, which former Gov. Carl Gutierrez signed in 2000 to manage the return of the land to the government of Guam, specified that the area should be used for industrial or commercial uses.

It says that a 1995 Navy environmental test showed traces of toxins, including tetrachloroethylene and thallium, in the groundwater, lead-based paint run-off in the soil and the potential presence of radon and asbestos in the buildings.

Tetrachloroethylene, an industrial solvent known as PCE, is a colorless organic liquid used for dry cleaning and industrial metal cleaning. High levels have been known to cause liver, kidney and central nervous system damage and have been linked to cancer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web site.

The soil is so polluted that the agreement to turn the property over to the local government states that the soil can't be excavated or transported off site for treatment or disposal unless given prior written permission by the Guam Environmental Protection Agency.

"(These) industrial sites will contain hazardous substances and/or petroleum, oil and lubricant contamination at concentrations that render them unsuitable for residential use," the original agreement states.

Guam EPA spokesman Mike Mann said a survey of the structures was done by the Navy before vacating Tiyan and the survey determined that asbestos wasn't present in all buildings and that the levels detected in some buildings weren't dangerous.

Mann said the issue with the ground water exists, but the NAS-1 water well, which pumps Tiyan water, has been fitted with a filtering system that meets environmental standards.

Mann said one potential concern could be the presence of lead paint in the soil. While he isn't sure what the levels are, he said lead, if ingested by young children, could potentially cause developmental problems.

A 2002 law introduced by Sen. Mark Forbes, and allowed to lapse into law by Gutierrez, returned 248 acres of Tiyan land to its ancestral owners. The Guam Legislature's Web site incorrectly identifies Gutierrez as having signed the bill into law on June 6, 2002.

A 2004 Forbes bill also returned the cliff-side property to previous landowners.

Rochella Perez, 36, whose family lives in a cliff-side duplex returned to her father, said that, as far as she knew, there wasn't any mention of possible health hazards from the Ancestral Lands Commission when her family got the property back.

"We have a family and we want to make sure we are healthy and not worry about long-term health issues," the mother of six said.

Gov. Felix Camacho said he was not familiar with the health issues, but added, "I don't think it can be ignored."

"Their desire to live there must be weighed against a potential health risk that eventually could surface," he said.

"We'll have to engage EPA and the feds in this, as those properties were conveyed by the government. I would assume at this point there was no remediation to either remove the contaminants or health hazards; ... they were handed over and, remember, many of these buildings had been used by government employees over the last eight or 10 years as government offices."

Forbes, R-Sinajana, said he never felt that the land was suitable to be used for residential property because it is so close to an airport runway.

The speaker said he thinks many of the landowners understand that it is not an ideal place to live with the noise pollution from the airport. He said the point is not how they use the land, but who will benefit from the use of the land -- a benefit that the original landowners deserve.

Forbes said if there are potential health issues that could arise from having people live in the area, then the local government has the power to zone it for industrial and commercial use.

The senator added that if the land must be returned, then the families there should be given a parcel of land elsewhere or paid fair market value for their property.

A similar cliff line property in the area has been valued by the government at $8.2 million, or about $54.19 per square meter.

The land earmarked for future highway use is 456,806 square meters, which means it would be worth about $24.75 million.

Yvonne Blas, 49, said she lives with her husband, Edward, and five grandchildren in their duplex on East Sunset Boulevard.

The property belonged to her husband's mother and was taken from the family when her husband's mother was 21. Yvonne Blas said her husband's family is entitled to the property and that it is wrong for the federal government to retake the land. She said she is upset that she was not told of the potential environmental hazards with the land.

While she said it would not persuade her to move out of the rent-free former military duplex she lives in, she felt she and other landowners deserved to know.

"My husband's family are farmers and they used to grow crops in this area,," she said."If it was their mess, then why didn't they clean it?"

The quitclaim agreement makes specific reference to the problems in the area, and stated that if the government of Guam wants the property back, it will take it with the potential problems and that the United States would be free of any liability.

February 13, 2006

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