US Navy’s CNMI Impact Statement Ignores Water Contamination

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US Navy’s CNMI Impact Statement Ignores Water Contamination Studies showing large possible impact left out of EIS, confirms EPA

By Dennis B. Chan

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, July 29, 2015) – The Department of Navy has neglected to discuss in their environmental impact documents ready-available data suggesting genuine and proven threats to munitions contaminants leaching into surface or groundwater on Tinian, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirmed yesterday.

Local agencies and government consultants have been concerned with these data omissions.

They say the Navy’s designations of "less than significant" impacts to water quality on Tinian must be changed.

One omitted study—an EPA study from 2012—covered a wide range of munitions chemicals and propellants left in the soils of over 30 military installations and firing ranges in the U.S., including Hawaii.

Another omitted study—from the U.S. Geological Survey—points out how Tinian’s relatively porous limestone geology could be susceptible to pollution via infiltration.

These studies are readily available via Google Search.

Environmental Science Associates director Jim Keany told Saipan Tribune that the EPA paper also cites a number of very specific studies dealing with munitions, soil residues, and groundwater risk—but that the Navy cites none of these in their analysis of effects.

"The conclusions seem to be drawn to meet a vision," Keany said. ESA has been hired to review Navy impact documents.

When sought for comment, the Environmental Protection Agency confirmed that that they were aware of these data omissions within the "CNMI Joint Military Training" draft environmental impact statement.

"Yes, in general—in that they [the Navy] didn’t really evaluate the impact from MCs [munitions constituents]," said public affairs officer Dean Higuchi, speaking on behalf of those in EPA working on the review of the EIS.

Higuchi confirmed that EPA would address the potential mobility and leaching of MCs into Tinian and Pagan groundwater in their official comments.

"We cannot say more at this time, as the comments are not final yet," Higuchi added.

Comments from the Marine Corp Force Pacific were not yet available as of press time.

Keany explains that the EPA report discusses their results by munitions range type—from hand grenade, to small arms, and bombing ranges.

For Tinian and Pagan, MARFORPAC would expend a "munitions quantities" of 114,681 for field artillery, mortar, rocket, and grenade training, according to a summary of use per year provided by ESA.

MARFORPAC proposes to expend 4,924,643 rounds of small arms to .50 caliber rounds per year. Maforpac also proposes to expend 176,000 total of air-delivered munitions. These include up to 1,000-lb bombs.

Keany said the 2012 EPA report looked at heavy metal residues in soils and in a few cases, in groundwater.

"The results show that there is a wide range of chemicals that are left in soil—many of which can be mobilized by rain and travel to groundwater. This is a particular concern because—as the USGS study notes—the karst limestone geology of the islands is relatively porous on Pagan and Tinian," Keany explained.

"The Navy also does not address destruction of duds or excess munitions that are discussed in the EPA report," he said.

The EPA report states: "Military EOD technicians use [open burn/open detonation] ranges at active [Department of Defense] training facilities to destroy duds of various munitions that are considered acceptable to move. Sometimes chunks of high explosive or unused propellants are also destroyed at these ranges by detonation or burning."

It also states: "As discussed in Clausen et al. (2007) perchlorate is rapidly dissolved, does not absorb to soil components, is largely recalcitrant, and thus it is highly mobile. The high solubility and ease of dissolution prevents persistent build-up in soil, but can potentially produce groundwater contamination."

"The general concern is that there will be a great deal of munitions spent annually both on Pagan and Tinian," Keany said. "From studies such as this EPA paper, and the ones cited in the paper, we know that a number of chemicals and heavy metals can accumulate in soil. Many can be mobilized by water. These mobilized chemicals can seep into the soils and because of the limestone geology o the islands, can easily make their way to the groundwater." The freshwater aquifer of Pagan and Tinian is a lens of freshwater that sits atop seawater.

Lack of baseline data

The Navy’s impact documents also lack important information on the current state of Tinian’s groundwater and the effects of any leftover chemicals from World War II. This information is important because it would provide a "baseline" from which regulatory agencies can compare in gauging the effects of the military’s spent munitions.

The Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality is concerned with this lack of data—especially in regards to MCs and their byproducts.

"There is no baseline data with which to compare, or for [the Navy] to identify increasing contamination levels, and ultimately to react and remediate," BECQ said, in a summary of their EIS comments on water quality impacts.

"The [impact document] does not state whether or not they currently possess water quality data for munitions constituents, to compare to future levels, nor do they specify what MCs would be included in live and inert munitions."

"The [Navy] does not provide information regarding the model or method used to determine the chemical transport of MCs throughout the water bodies of the CNMI."

Keany said there could be already some chemical residue from World War II’s extensive bombing and fighting on Tinian.

"It would be important to understand the current conditions to provide a full analysis of expected effects," he said. "There are thresholds for many chemicals in groundwater regarding human health and safety—but there is no such analysis in this Navy EIS."

"There is no way to evaluate the risk to human health and safety from the document or predict the risk to groundwater water contamination. No data has been presented even on the existing conditions of the groundwater and soil."

Keany said the Navy needs to:

Significant impact, not any less

Both Keany and BECQ disagree with the Navy’s designation of "less than significant impacts" groundwater resources.

When asked if there were enough concerns to compel the Navy to raise their "less-than-significant" designation to "significant," Keany said, "Absolutely."

"Generally when analyzing such human health risks the professional approach is to err on the conservative side if there is no data. The Navy has done the opposite," he said.

These "significant" or "less than significant" designations concern legal definitions, Saipan Tribune learned—but what exactly is a significant impact as defined by National Environmental Policy Act and Council of Environmental Quality regulations are at issue. If something causes a significant impact—it has to be mitigated, lessened or rescaled, or eliminated under some circumstances.

Saipan Tribune learned that local agencies and government consultants have been tying their EIS review to other federal and local laws outside of NEPA like the Endangered Species Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Clean Water Act.

The Clean Water Act for instance would prevent proposed activities from polluting or contaminating water. And the Coastal Zone Management Act would prevent harm to coastal areas.

In a memorandum on the "Legal Adequacy of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement" for the CJMT project, Dentons—the firm hired to review this document—notes these failures of compliance with law.

"The [EIS] does not contain data and information necessary to demonstrate compliance with these requirements," Dentons said.

"On the contrary, the limited evidence presented in the document suggests that the CJMT would violate both federal and CNMI law," Dentons said.

BECQ, in their water quality comments, remind the Navy that the "CNMI owns the groundwater of Tinian" and if the Department of Defense would like to use it they "must apply for a permit and use it in accordance with CNMI law."

"Tinian is a sole-source aquifer system with limited fresh water availability, and the military has provided no evidence that impacts such as contamination, salt-water intrusion, or water shortage due to over-extraction" from military water wells "would not impact the southern aquifer system.

"Tinian residents already struggle to use groundwater resources sustainably, and any negative impacts to these resources due to proposed activities would have significant impacts to the population and the environment," BECQ said.

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