Administrative Issues Hinder Bikini Atoll Nuclear Compensations

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Federal agencies unclear over who can approve payments

By Giff Johnson

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, July 6, 2012) – A request by Bikini Islanders to withdraw $5 million from their Claims Trust Fund for a special distribution to the displaced islanders has hit a snag, with U.S. Congressional leaders asking the Departments of the Interior and State to decide what agency has authority to approve or disapprove these payments now that the Nuclear Claims Tribunal is no longer functional.

Earlier this year, Bikini Mayor Nishma Jamodre sent a letter to Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Phillip Muller seeking approval of the $5 million disbursement. Muller issued a letter stating the government’s endorsement of the planned withdrawal.

But last month, U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, and Lisa Murkowski, the ranking Republican member, wrote to Secretaries of State and the Interior Hillary Clinton and Ken Salazar, respectively, putting the issue on their agenda.

"The committee was recently contacted regarding a request by the Kili/Bikini/Ejit Local Government Council, approved by the Marshall Islands government, to distribute $5 million from the Bikini Claims Fund," said the June 19 letter from the two U.S. senators, which was obtained Wednesday. "Our view is that such a distribution would be inconsistent with the purpose of the Claims Fund as set forth in Article II, that is, ‘to provide a perpetual source of income’ to the community. Moreover, such a distribution would violate the Agreed Minutes of the Agreement for the Implementation of Section 177, which permits ‘the invasion of the corpus only in the event of an unforeseen natural disaster or similar circumstance."

The Bikini Claims Fund is currently valued at about $57 million. It was funded by the United States as compensation for the Bikinians being forced into exile so that 23 nuclear weapons tests could be conducted between 1946 and 1958.

In the years since the first Compact was implemented in 1986, Bikini withdrew funds every three years — as is allowed under special circumstances by the provisions of the Section 177 compensation agreement — for special distributions to its community. These distributions were made with the approval of the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, which had authority for reviewing such requests.

But the Tribunal has nearly run out of funds; there have been no judges employed by the Tribunal for more than a year, and although the Tribunal remains open, it is now staffed only on a part-time basis.

"This request from the Bikini Local Government, and the fact that the Nuclear Claims Tribunal is no longer in operation, raise important questions about the oversight and management of the four Claims Trust Funds," Bingaman and Murkowski said to Clinton and Salazar.

The issue affects Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrik, all of which have Compact-funded Claims Trust Funds as atolls that the U.S. government-acknowledges were affected by nuclear testing.

The senators asked the State and Interior to consult with their legal departments to decide:

Bingaman and Murkowsi also asked the State Department to talk to the Marshall Islands government to revise the Compact compensation agreement to identify a new independent institution to serve as a forum for members of the public to challenge distributions made from the Claims Trust Funds of Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrik, and to establish a new process to consider requests for disbursements.

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