The Multinational Monitor



A Toxic Legacy

"We don't shootbirds and we don't chop down trees. There's no environmental problem here."

That's how Captain A.B. Ballesteros of the Philippine Air Force responds when asked about environmental problems at Clark Air Base, the former U.S.-operated military base now maintained by the Philippine Air Force.

Unfortunately, the environmental situation at Clark and at the nearby Suhic Bay Naval Facility, also formerly operated by the U.S. military, is much more complicated than Capt. Ballesteros - or, more importantly, the U.S. military- would like to acknowledge.

For the 45 years after World War II, Subic and Clark were the vortex from which the United States projected its military power in the Pacific region. Following the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo and the Philippine Senate's rejection of a base-treaty extension, the United States withdrew from Clark in 1991 and Subic in 1992.

The base operations were massive in scope, housing not just soldiers but ship repair facilities, runways, landfills, supply depots, power plants and underground oil pipelines. Operations at the bases used a wide range of toxic substances and generated an equally broad array of hazardous wastes: unexploded ordnance, PCBs, asbestos, cyanide and lead and other dangerous heavy metals among them, according to studies conducted by the World Health Organization and the U.S. General Accounting Office.

The Philippine and U.S. regulatory authorities left the U.S. Navy and Air Force with wide latitude in dealing with pollution and hazardous waste disposal. U.S. service regulations require overseas bases to adhere to host country environmental regulations - as they are applied. Since Philippine enforcement of its environmental laws is lax, the standard governing the bases was lax. Some U.S. military regulations require more stringent environmental measures, but they are only internal guidelines, regularly ignored even at domestic bases.

Exactly how severely the U.S. Navy and Air Force abused their largely unchecked power to degrade the environment is unclear. Only U.S. military officials have a real understanding of the extent of the toxics problem at the bases, and they are not telling.

Some U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) officials go so far as to deny that a toxic legacy remains at the bases. Asked whether he acknowledges that hazardous wastes were left behind, one DOD official who requested anonymity answers, "I don't think so." Conclusions like those of the GAO, he asserts, are merely surmisals based on the assumption that major military and industrial complexes like Subic and Clark must have generated wastes.

The DOD has stonewalled requests for information-although the DOD official claims that "We have made a good faith effort to turn over everything that bore on the issue." In 1992, the Department of the Navy stated in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that it had 80,000 documents, over 30 boxes, relating to "toxic substances, hazardous wastes and other contamination" at Subic alone. However, according to Polly Parks of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, the U.S. organization most actively pressing on the Philippine base environmental issue, when the DOD provided information on Subic to the Philippine government in November 1993, it turned over only four binders.

While the extent of the problem is unknown, it is clear that the toxics have seriously endangered the surrounding communities:

  • When the United States pulled out of the bases, poor Filipinos in the neighboring area were allowed to sort through base landfills; among the prize scraps were steel drums, many of which contained hazardous wastes. Those barrels are now being used throughout nearby communities to catch and store water and for other purposes.
  • Refugees displaced by the Mt. Pinatubo lava and ash flows are now living in Clark Air Base, and some are farming there. Some of the farmers are growing rice in former sewage treatment ponds.
  • Some former base workers have reported that they were involved in or aware of the improper disposal of hazardous wastes. One former base worker, for example, told CNN that drums of cyanide were buried at Subic - and, he believes, never removed.
  • Because the areas surrounding the bases are densely populated by poor families, pollution of area groundwater supplies with dangerous chemical solvents, pesticides or other toxics poses major, long-term risks to a large population.
  • The contaminants also pose risks to future workers at the bases themselves. The Philippine government plans to convert Subic to an industrial and tourist zone, and Clark into an international airport or industrial zone; workers in these new operations will have no way to know about or protect themselves from hidden hazards left over from U.S. military operations.

The Philippines is utterly without the resources to identify the hazards at Subic and Clark, let alone clean up the bases.

If further public health and ecological damage is to be averted, the United States must accept responsibility for the mess it created - a step it has so far been unwilling to take.

The DOD justifies its refusal to accept responsibility for its actions by pointing to the governing 1947 basing agreement, which specifies that the United States was not obligated to return the bases in their original condition. In the words of the anonymous DOD official, the legal consequence of the basing agreement is that "when we depart, we don't have to clean up."

And the DOD simply dismisses the claim that it has an extralegal obligation to help clean up the mess it made. Asked whether the DOD had an ethical responsibility to clean up the bases, the DOD official says, "I am not an ethics adviser. ... Maybe you can check with a religious leader."

But the United States does have an obligation - to the truth and to the Filipino people - to acknowledge its toxic legacy and ensure that it is handled properly. The DOD should turn over all relevant information to the Philippines, and provide technical assistance, technology and financing, so that Filipinos can properly assess the toxic threat they now must face and take appropriate clean-up actions.

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