SAIPAN HOMESTEAD PROJECT BEGINS WITH ORDNANCE REMOVAL

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Development to include 500 lots

By Kristi Eaton

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, April 7, 2009) - Motorists driving up to Suicide Cliff will notice a difference to Marpi as a hazardous material company removes unexploded ordnance on 62 hectares of land in preparation for the Marpi Point Village Homestead Development.

The development will support approximately 500 homesteads and related infrastructure.

Workers from Ampro are currently working to remove the unexploded ordnance for the future homestead development, which according to Department of Public Lands Secretary John Del Rosario, is years away from happening.

The Environmental Protection Agency in 2006 awarded DPL a US$350,000 Brownfields Assessment and Cleanup agreement to assess and remove the ordnance in order to develop the Marpi Point Village, according to a June 2008 biological impact assessment completed in preparation for the village project.

Del Rosario said the homestead project was part of the residential development master plan completed years ago. He said personally he would like to see the area remain untouched.

"It’s a wonderful drive for both our people and visitors alike. You know you don’t want to disturb that," he added.

According to a letter from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service to EPA, infrastructure for the homesteads will be installed approximately two to three years after the ordnance removal process.

Realistically, Del Rosario said, it’s going to take years to see any sort of homestead because the area lacks infrastructure.

"You’ve got to make sure you have in place the following: water, power, sewer and roads, in the community itself. It takes a lot of money to do that," Del Rosario said.

But money is something that DPL does not currently have, he added. It cost US$6 million in Koblerville alone, where a homestead project is currently underway, to build the necessary infrastructure. And, the secretary said, Public Lands must compete with essentials services like Public Health, Public Safety and the Public School System for any CIP money

"It’s going to take years to get the money together. It’s not very realistic," he said.

Homestead or no homestead, Del Rosario said the unexploded ordnance need to be removed.

"Whether we keep it as a visitor site and maintain its pristine nature, the assessment and cleanup must go on, for the safety of both residents and tourists alike," he said.

The biological impact assessment completed in preparation for the homestead project stated:

"The removal of Hazardous Materials from the area by the DPL will improve public safety and render the property useable for other purposes. One potential use that DPL is considering for this site is developing the area as a homestead area for landless indigenous persons of Northern Mariana descent."

EPA does not fund the homestead project and it is a DPL action, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service letter.

"[H]owever, the homesteads can only be built on the project site if the [unexploded ordnance] is removed. We consider the grading and development of the project site into homesteads interrelated to the proposed project and have evaluated homestead development under interrelated effects," the letter said.

Two projects in Koblerville and Capital Hill will provide 1,200 homesteads. There are about 4,000 homestead applicants on Saipan who are waiting for their lot assignments.

There are four threatened species that could be affected by the project: the Mariana fruit bat, Mariana swiftlet, Micronesia megapode and Nightingale reed-warbler. The reed-warbler will more than likely see the most impact by the ordnance removal, according to a letter from the U.S. Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service to EPA.

During recent assessments, four reed-warbler pairs were found with active nests within the area. At least one, and possibly two, additional singing males were also detected on at least one occasion. The proposed project will remove approximately 58 hectares of the habitats, thereby permanently destroying four nightingale reed-warbler territories and rendering the parcel unsuitable for future breeding, feeding, or for shelter.

"Therefore, we concur that the proposed project will adversely affect the nightingale reed-warbler," the letter stated.

However, the removal and homestead project is not likely to jeopardize the survival of the reed-warbler because the percentage affected is very small, Fish and Wildlife concluded.

Large decorative or ornamental trees, such as the flame tree, will be retained; otherwise all vegetation will be removed in order to identify the ordnance, which will be removed using a shovel.

DPL, according to the letter, is undertaking conservation efforts. The department removed a portion of the project site in order to avoid impacts to the megapode, for example.

JD Robinson, an associate at Ampro, said all indigenous trees will be saved and four acres will be used for a historic preservation office. An area with a trail and plague will also be a part of the area.

Ampro will be working on the area for about nine months.

DPL will oversee the development of homesteads, including the building of infrastructure such as roads, utilities and schools. As much as possible, DPL will try to reduce the impact to the reed-warbler and megapode, the Fish and Wildlife letter stated. Ninety days before the homestead development, DPL is to provide the Fish and Wildlife Service with a development plan, detailing the location of homestead sites, schools, roads, utilities and any other related building or infrastructure.

The U.S. military utilized the area immediately after the capture of Saipan during World War II. It was used to store thousands of tons of ordnance for the impending invasion of the Japanese mainland. In the 1950s, the U.S. Army attempted to dispose of the munitions by blowing them up in place, but it was only partly successful, leaving the area with unexploded ordnance, according to the biological assessment of the area.

In the 1960s, a cleanup operation was undertaken and 4,000 tons of hazardous materials were collected and disposed of Conservative estimates say less than half the ordnance present was removed. Present ordnance includes projectiles, hand grenades and mortar rounds.

Robinson said the issue of unexploded ordnance is a problem all over Saipan.

"It’s a good thing for the island, absolutely," he said of the cleanup.

The Marianas Visitors Authority has yet to take a position on the issue.

The Marpi area is a major tourist attraction for foreign tourists with its storied past.

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