SOLOMONS URGED TO CLEAN UP ‘IRON BOTTOM SOUND’

News Release

S. Alfred Sasako Media Consultant Brisbane, Australia June 28, 2007

A former Solomon Islands parliamentarian has urged the government to pursue the cleanup of Iron Bottom Sound of World War II wrecks, warning of imminent environmental disaster of monumental scale.

[PIR editor’s note: Iron Bottom Sound is the narrow passage between Guadalcanal and the Florida Islands in the Solomon Islands that became the scene of major naval battles during World War II. The wreckage of some 111 Japanese and American warships still litter the ocean floor more than 60 years later, raising concerns about possible leakage of oil and unexploded munitions.]

Commenting on a police report that a substance found on a beach west of Honiara is chemical used in World War II, Alfred Sasako said a recent ruling in Australia appears to have removed the lid on the statute of limitation.

Alfred who held senior portfolios in his eight years in national politics in Solomon Islands, said today police suspected the Honiara find to be that of white phosphorus because it burns when it comes into contact with oxygen.

He said the police assessment appears to indicate that unexploded bombs or ordnance onboard warships sank in the Iron Bottom Sound have begun to leak.

"If this is true, the Solomon Islands’ marine life is at very grave risk. Time is running out," Alfred said.

"We must not forget that hundreds of thousands of litres of fuel also lie in those ships. Once the fuel begins to seep out, we face environmental disaster of monumental scale," he said.

Alfred said the matter was raised with governments of the Allied Forces in 1997 and again in 1998, prompting an initial assessment to be carried out by the Suva-based SOPAC [South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission].

He said the response by Australia and the United States at the time was one of lukewarm. "They simply regarded the Iron Bottom Sound as a graveyard which should be left undisturbed," Alfred said.

"If the find outside Honiara was indeed coming from those ships lying there, I think it is a warning that should be taken seriously before it is too late.

"To my knowledge, nothing further has been done by way of follow-up to the SOPAC study. I think the time has come to do so in the hope we help minimize an environmental disaster we will all live to regret," he said.

Alfred said a ruling in Australia last week involving compensation for World War II claims appears to have thrown open the door of the statute of limitation which foreign governments have used to ignore compensation claims.

Western Australia is claiming a win after the commonwealth accepted responsibility for the delicate clean-up of World War II bombs sitting at the bottom of Albany harbour, in the state's south.

The Albany Port Authority (APA) had been suing the federal government in the WA Supreme Court because the Defence Department would not clean up ordnance dropped by defence personnel in the harbour between October 1947 and March 1948.

But on Friday night, halfway through the four-week case, a settlement was announced.

The commonwealth agreed to pay the port $5.25 million for past and future dredging and clean-up costs and $1 million for legal costs.

The agreement also requires the port to indemnify the commonwealth against any future claims.

Alfred said the Canberra had for the past seven years resisted settling the matter.

According to media reports here, Canberra used "every trick in the book" to avoid paying the compensation.

The report said that so much ordnance was found in 2000 that WA's occupational health and safety authority ordered dredging stopped until the harbour was deemed safe.

The cachet of bombs includes a 250-pound aerial bomb, 18-pound artillery shells and a variety of large and small calibre ordnance.

"I am more than convinced that some of the bombs lying in the hulls of those ships would be a lot larger than those found in the bottom of Albany harbour in Western Australia," Alfred said.

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