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WWII ORDNANCE CLEARED FROM SAIPAN PROJECT SITE Over 12,000 pieces of unexploded ordinance removed

By Haidee V. Eugenio SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Feb. 26, 2010) - Over 12,000 pieces of unexploded World War II ordnance have been removed from a scenic Marpi area where a controversial homestead project by the Department of Public Lands was supposed to be built.

DPL contractor Ampro is expected to soon collect soil samples for testing. The tests will determine whether soil in the area has been contaminated with hazardous materials because of the ordnance, among other things.

The cleanup of the 624,000 square meters of public land in Marpi and its end use plan have been a contentious subject between private citizens and DPL since last year because of a lack of public hearing prior to the actual land clearing, its negative impact on a tourist site, and the lack of a major siting permit, among other issues.

Public Lands acting Secretary Oscar M. Babauta yesterday told Saipan Tribune that the homestead project has been "shelved" because of lack of resources to move on with it at this time, just like what former DPL Secretary John S. DelRosario told the public several times last year.

On Wednesday night, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and DPL officials met with members of the public to provide updates on the project, and receive feedback from them.

Community members present at the meeting, including Ruth Tighe, former House Speaker Arnold I. Palacios, and former Rep. Tina Sablan, were particularly concerned about the "end use" of the area, now that it has been cleaned up of unexploded war ordnance, thanks to a US$550,000 Brownfields Program grant from EPA.

DPL project manager Franz Reksid, during the community meeting, repeatedly told the crowd that the "CNMI government cannot proceed with the homestead development now."

Debbie Schechter, section chief of the USEPA-Region 9’s Brownfields and Site Assessment Section, and Pankaj Arora of the Brownfields Program USEPA-Region 9, said "EPA has no authority over local land use decisions."

"EPA doesn’t have a role or say to define what the end use of the land should be. That is up to the local government and the citizens," he said.

Arora said EPA has also learned from the Marpi project, including making sure that recipients of its grants comply with conditions of the grant funding.

Community members also expressed concern over the re-vegetation efforts and the appearance of invasive vines.

Babauta said he and other DPL officials will meet today with the visiting EPA officials to talk about the Marpi project, among other things.

DPL contracted Ampro for the removal of unexploded ordnance from Marpi, an area which was used by the U.S. military immediately after the capture of Saipan during World War II.

The site was used to store thousands of tons of ordnance for the impending invasion of the Japanese mainland.

John Scott, president of Ampro, said yesterday that Ampro removed over 160,000 lbs. of scrap metals and other man-made trash including cars and trucks, in addition to over 12,000 pieces of unexploded war ordnance.

Most of them were projectiles, grenades, and mortar rounds.

He said Ampro is now working on the soil sampling and analysis plan which needs EPA’s approval.

"Once we submit that and we get their approval, then we would proceed with the sampling," he said, adding that the whole process, from sampling to the laboratory test results, will eat up another two to three weeks.

Arora said DPL would have to take some remedial actions if soil would be found with high concentration of hazardous materials. The remedial actions should also take into consideration the end-use plan for the area.

Scott said nobody at the public meeting on Wednesday night talked about the economic benefits of having the Marpi area cleaned up of unexploded ordnance and other debris.

The bulk or US$500,000 of the US$550,000 Brownfields grant that EPA awarded to DPL went to Ampro’s contract to assess and cleanup the Marpi area, while DPL used the remaining amount for in-house costs associated with the project.

"Six contract companies and some 32 employees worked on the project. The direct tax benefits from Ampro alone is over US$25,000. The tax benefits from the subcontractors are also in tens of thousands of dollars, and all money is spent on island," he said.

During her term in the 16th Legislature, Tina Sablan introduced a bill to declare as protected area the controversial 624,000 square meters of public land in Marpi that’s designated for homestead development by DPL. The bill was not passed and signed into law.

Her bill also said that the public lands designated for homesteads in Marpi are unsuitable for homestead development because of lack of infrastructure; unusable groundwater resources; thin soil that is incompatible with septic system installation; proximity to highly significant cultural and historic sites, including Suicide Cliff, the National Historic Landmark of Marpi Point, and numerous war memorials; proximity to economically valuable tourist attractions; and proximity to protected areas, including endangered species habitat.

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