Tinian Residents Emphatically Oppose Military Exercises

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Public hearings so support for ‘No Action Alternative’

By Alexie Villegas Zotomayor

TINIAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, May 4, 2015) – Citing broken promises relating to the Covenant negotiations, and significant impact on the environment and the local economy, the people of Tinian came out in droves and expressed their emphatic "No" to the military’s proposal to build live-fire ranges and training areas on Tinian.

[PIR editor’s note: Saipan Tribune reported that ‘The military will start incorporating the public comments it had gathered on a draft environmental impact statement on proposed "live-firing" exercises on Tinian and Pagan after conducting several public hearings on the issue. ... According to Craig Whelden, executive director of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific, the military will look for ways to address the public’s concerns and incorporate these concerns in the final EIS. ... Most of the public comments in the hearings opposed any bombings on Pagan.’]

At Thursday night’s public hearing on the draft CNMI Joint Military Training environmental impact statement at the Tinian Junior Senior High School, the island’s leaders and residents unanimously conveyed their opposition to the military plan and indicated they favored the "No Action Alternative."

Explaining that they are not anti-military, but are against the proposal, the residents led by Tinian Mayor Joey P. San Nicolas underscored the military action’s significant impact on their island’s environment and economy.

Prefacing his statement that he is not averse to the military, that he has a son who serves in the U.S. Air Force, that the island has many veteran residents, he said the meeting was not about their support for the military but rather about the proposed military action.

"For the record, I and the members of the Tinian leadership are against the manner in which the military proposes to use Tinian as described in the draft EIS," said San Nicolas which was applauded by the residents.

San Nicolas said Tinian is a pristine island — virtually untouched — and home to unique bird species, coral reefs and plants used by their "suruhÃ¥nu" — healers.

"The construction of live-fire ranges and a training complex that uses artillery, mortar and rocket launchers, will have significant, devastating and permanent impacts on our reefs, our jungle and our soil," he said.

The planned construction of a landing area for amphibious assault vehicles will require the dredging of 800,000 cubic feet of marine habitat.

Citing the DEIS, San Nicolas said this will "permanently change the habitat of the near shore areas of the beach of Unai Chulu."

The plan will also destroy approximately 2,000 acres of jungle which serves as a habitat for many native birds.

Under the military’s preferred alternative, San Nicolas said 7,200 of Tinian Monarchs, or approximately 8 percent of the total population will suffer loss of nesting and foraging areas.

It will also have a significant impact on other bird species, he said, such as Bridled White Eye, Micronesian Starling and Rufous fantail.

He also said construction of live-fire ranges will permanently destroy 230 acres of prime farm land soil.

"That means 16 percent of the total prime farm soil available on Tinian will be lost forever," he said adding that the DEIS has no mitigation for this loss.

He said they will never get these back.

He said the millions of bullets, grenades, and rockets used every year will make their lands "essentially unusable."

He also said that cleaning up waste has never been a priority for the military, citing waste left on Tinian decades ago.

"We have a duty to protect our environment for future generations," he said.

He said that based on these significant impacts, the military should select the no action alternative.

Sen. Francisco M. Borja also cited these impacts, particularly on the cattle ranchers.

The plans will have a devastating impact on the cattle industry and Tinian’s economic growth, he said.

The DEIS, he said, is not clear about how much access to military leased lands will be available throughout the year.

He said the proposed action will impact tourism as it will limit access to to 10 out of 12 historical sites.

"Two of these sites, the Shinto Shrine and Hinode will be destroyed," he said.

He also cited the loss of access to major dive sites.

Municipal Council Chairman Reynaldo Cing said, "The plan as proposed will change every aspect of our life as we know it."

He also decried the loss of access to historical and cultural sites.

He said there will be 22 weeks of pre- and post-training preparation on top of the 20 weeks a year in training.

"The military must be honest and transparent with us," he said.

He said he supports the military, but he doesn’t support the plan.

Serafina Rosario King Nabors, said she did not vote for a live-fire range when they approved the Covenant decades ago.

"Forty years ago we were marching for the Covenant," she said, adding that it was promised that a base would be built on Tinian that would provide jobs for Tinian residents.

She said they did not vote for a training range.

"You were already given Farallon de Medinilla," she said addressing the military.

As she spoke in Chamorro and English, she mentioned the incidence of cancer on island.

She said she is herself a cancer survivor.

She asked for the training ranges to be constructed in California.

"Biba Marianas! Biba Chamorro," said Nabors to the crowd’s deafening applause.

For his part, Lino Lizama opposes the bombing of Tinian and Pagan.

Joseph Connelly, who has been living on Tinian since 1984, said, "This public access needs to be further explained to the Taotao Tinian."

He also asked questions relating to construction of the ranges for 8-10 years.

He raised concerns related to the proximity of munitions areas to the airport.

Vietnam War veteran Gil Borja opposes the action, saying he opposes any training exercise on Tinian and Pagan.

He said Hawaii is different: the firing range is far from the town.

14-year-old Chelsea Rosario said it will impact the peace and tranquility on island.

She said the proposed action will reduce the culture and heritage to a "memory."

Tinian Casino Gaming Control Commission Chairman Matthew C. Masga said he is unequivocally opposed as it will have a significant impact on the casino industry and will heap burdens on a lot of people.

Masga said one week of training alone is too much of a burden.

He cited the noise that will make Tinian unattractive to tourists.

He said tourism will see a downward spiral due to limited activities on island.

"Our people and tourists will no longer be free to visit historical sites," he said.

For Eric San Nicolas, the U.S. military does not own two-thirds of Tinian, "they lease it."

He said, "We are the patrons of the land. Land is connected to us. Our land is connected to our soul."

John Barcinas said it is their right to say, "No."

For Kimberly Hinds, the DEIS is nothing more than a plan to destroy Tinian "and to kill our culture."

She said what the military calls restricted access to beaches, to coastal zones, alterations of the seafloor, and taking away corals, "is what we call our customary right and way of feeding our families. What you call your cattle grazing mitigation plan is a threat to our food supply and our ability to be self-sustaining. What you call restricted access to our cultural sites is really a denial of our ability to practice our traditional and customary rights…picking ‘donni,’ paying respect to our dead, going hunting." For Hinds, the 20-week training will be an economic shackle on Tinian that is struggling to be self-sustaining.

"No respect to the land and to the people of this community," she said.

Jose P. Kiyoshi, a former Marine, said the promise back then was for a military base; not a firing range.

"No to the firing range; yes to the base," he said.

He said this will change the lives of the people in the community.

Debra Fleming also said there were so many broken promises: the promise of a U.S. military base, a commissary, a theatre, and a school.

She said the dock was never fixed.

"Now they want to dredge Unai Chulu," she said pointing out that it is an ancient burial ground, where there are latte stones.

"All this EIS—is a waste of our time. What’s the point in all of this," she said.

She asked if the CNMI could renegotiate to take the land back "at the price they purchased it?"

The use of bombs was never in the picture when they negotiated the Covenant.

Juanita Mendiola told the military to build their own island.

She said the destruction of Tinian and Pagan is not exclusively local — it is global.

"This island is sacred to all of us. This entire island is sacred. Please do not desecrate it," she said.

Archaeologist Craig Weaver said the DEIS did not mention anything on preservation.

Lou Dela Cruz said Tinian is too beautiful to be destroyed.

Keith Nabors asked the people to say "no" to the proposed military action.

He said in past military exercises, with boots on the ground, "they landed on the wrong beach."

Even with modern technology, they landed on the wrong beach, he said.

He expressed his concern that with the firing-ranges, mistakes like this may happen.

Joseph Mendiola said they support the military yet the training on Tinian will impact their livelihood.

He cited the noise impact as evidenced from the Fury exercises.

Whelden clarifies: No live explosives on Tinian

Marine Forces Pacific Executive Director Craig B. Whelden dispelled the notion that they will be bombing Tinian.

"We are not planning to drop live explosive bombs on Tinian. We are not," he said.

He said the requirement is for them to train on how to provide air support and drop what they call ordnance — which is a generic term for bombs onto a target.

Having this skill can save thousands of lives.

"What we have planned is dropping inert bombs — essentially they have a puff of smoke when they hit the ground so we can see where they landed so we can practice that critical skill."

Inert bombs, according to online sources, "are aerial munitions filled with wet sand or cement."

According to http://www.thomaswictor.com/inert-bombs/, inert bombs are also called "dumb bombs."

The same website said that an inert bomb won’t explode, which means it can’t produce blast effects, and it can’t spray the area with lethal metal fragments.

The dropping of the inert bombs will only be done 10 percent of the time or for about two weeks.

Whelden also clarified that they are not sneaking behind the people’s backs as claimed by one person who spoke.

"Nothing could be further from the truth. I signed at least a dozen letters to the governors, to the mayors, to the directors of CPA, DPL, to other groups, governmental groups, identifying what we have in mind, why we have it in mind, when we would do it, who was coming, who we will coordinate with when we got here," he said.

He said in some cases they ask permission on property they don’t have control over outside the military lease area.

"We did it openly, with full notification of the government," he said.

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