U.S. REBUFFS RONGELAP LANDOWNERS, CUTS FUNDS

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By Giff Johnson

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, June 18) – The U.S. government is halting an annual US$600,000 payment to nuclear test affected islanders in the Pacific in response to a demand by a traditional leader for more than four times the amount.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior David Cohen told Rongelap Atoll Mayor James Matayoshi in a May 24 letter obtained Friday that Interior will no longer approve the US$600,000 annual "tribute" to islanders that has been paid annually since 1998 for use of their land.

A U.S. Congress-provided US$45 million resettlement fund has, since 1998, paid for power, water, road, housing and other community infrastructure needed for islanders to resettle their island that was exposed to a snow storm of radioactive fallout from the 1954 Bravo hydrogen bomb test at nearby Bikini Atoll. About US$20 million of the fund has already been used for the improvements at Rongelap.

[PIR editor’s note: According to a website on radiological incidents, on March 1, 1954 a hydrogen bomb was detonated on Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands. One person died of complications from the fallout and more than 93 others had injuries related to exposure due to gross underestimates of the size and impact of the bomb.]

Cohen’s ultimatum follows a lawsuit filed in the Marshall Islands High Court in late February by a Hawaii-based company, Marshall Islands Technology, Inc., that is seeking to enforce a lease agreement between MIT and traditional chief and former Marshall Islands President Imata Kabua.

That lease calls for an up-front payment of US$28.8 million, and another US$38.6 million over 25-years.

Cohen also said bluntly that no matter what the Marshall Islands courts decide, the U.S. government will never allow payments from the Rongelap Resettlement Trust Fund for a Marshall Islands Technology Ltd. lease agreement with Iroij Imata Kabua. Cohen, who is based in Washington, D.C., oversees U.S. funding to the Marshall Islands and other U.S.-affiliated islands and territories in the Pacific area.

Rongelap’s local government, which has been overseeing efforts to resettle the island, opposes the proposed new lease for Rongelap. "Under MIT’s proposed sub-lease terms, the resettlement fund will be bankrupt and all resettlement projects will have to stop," Rongelap attorney Gordon Benjamin said.

"If the Interior Department sees that traditional owners are trying to play games with the Resettlement Trust Fund, they could withhold the US$600,000," Rongelap Mayor James Matayoshi said recently. Cohen’s action confirmed Matayoshi’s fears.

"The Office of Insular Affairs has followed closely the lawsuit against Rongelap Atoll Local Government by Mr. Wagdy A. Guirguis and Marshall Islands Technology Ltd., as well as public information about (the local government’s) agreement to respect contracts for legal fees made by private landowners of Rongelap and law firms that landowners have chosen to represent their (nuclear test compensation) claims," Cohen said in the May 24 letter.

Because of these developments, Cohen said Interior "will no longer approve annual payments of US$600,000 to landowners for access to and use of sites within the 200 acre area at Rongelap Atoll," and will only consider "justified funding for specified acreage used for (local government) operations and facilities in support of resettlement."

Under no circumstances will Interior agree to disbursements from the Rongelap Resettlement Trust Fund to pay the proposed MIT lease, he added.

Cohen responded to the islanders recent announcement that they had signed up U.S.-based law firms to sue the U.S. government for nuclear test compensation by telling Matayoshi that Interior "will not allow payment, whether by agreement or ordinance, from the Rongelap Resettlement Trust

Fund, including by pledge of assets, of costs in any way related to private landowner claims in any forum other than the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, including all administrative costs for travel, advisers, lawyers, consultants, witnesses, research, appraisals or any other costs."

The Majuro-based Nuclear Claims Tribunal recently issued a US$1 billion award for nuclear test damages and clean up costs for Rongelap. But the Tribunal, which has only about US$1 million left from a US$150 million compensation fund, said it cannot pay any of this award. Rongelap attorneys are expected to file suit in U.S. courts to press their case for payment of the Tribunal award.

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