US Leaves Toxins At Subic Navy Base

Government and military reports indicate that Pentagon felt it was not responsible for cleanup

THE United States military is knowingly leaving behind a serious contamination and hazardous waste problem at Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines. According to confidential US government and military reports and studies done by US scientists, the US military operated for years in a manner that violated US environmental standards and Philippine air- and water-safety laws. Cleanup will cost millions.

The reports indicate the US has determined that it is not legally responsible and has not taken any significant steps to clean up the contamination.

The 40,000-acre Subic Bay naval complex, which Washington will turn over to Manila today, had been operated by the US for almost a century until the Philippine Senate rejected a new agreement and then-President Corazon Aquino requested full US withdrawal by the end of December 1992.

"The US is vacating Subic Bay Naval Base while leaving behind an environmental disaster," says Jorge Emmanuel, a Philippine-born environmental scientist and president of Environmental Engineering Research Group, a consulting firm in Hercules, Calif.

After a year-long investigation, Dr. Emmanuel's team this week will release a preliminary study of toxicity levels based on samples taken from Clark Air Base, which was returned to the Philippines last year, and the Subic base perimeter. Emmanuel's concerns echo what scientists and US officials have been saying quietly for years.

"If there's a horror story out there, Subic may be it," Defense Department official David Berteau told the Los Angeles Times in June 1990. The Times also quoted a US Air Force official in Washington, D.C., as saying: "We comply with host-country laws. In the Philippines, there are none, so we are not in violation of any."

In fact, while illegal industrial pollution is common and enforcement is notoriously lax, the Philippines has comprehensive environmental laws modeled on US laws and standards. Air- and water-safety laws have been on the books since 1976. Hazardous- waste laws were enacted in 1990.

A January 1992 report by the US Congress's investigative arm, the General Accounting Office (GAO), lists some of the known damage and cites examples such as the seepage of chemicals directly into the soil and water table. In addition, US military documents obtained through the US Freedom of Information Act by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), a private development organiza-tion, point to contamination by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), considered carcinogenic. The documents state tha t the US had no plans to rectify problems before turning over the facility to the Philippines.

US Ambassador Richard Solomon denied the charges yesterday, saying that toxic wastes, particularly the PCBs, had been sent to the US at a cost of $3 million. The GAO report says that Navy environmental officers estimated in 1991 that cleanup projects at Subic alone would cost $15 million.

A US Embassy official in Manila says that some cleanup work was carried out before the withdrawal.

"The US Navy thinks hazardous waste at Subic Bay Naval Base has been handled in an exemplary manner," the official says. "The bottom line is that the US has spent over $1 million to make sure the place was cleaned up to standard."

"The Navy will say it is no big problem, but the GAO would not write such a report without evidence," says Polly Parks, a Philippine development expert at UUSC, which is based in Cambridge, Mass. "It is a question of precedent - because the US military could be held liable for cleanup at their bases all over the world - and a question of money; the US military simply does not have the budget."

US Rep. Richard Ray (D) of Georgia says that during a 1990 visit to Subic, Navy officials told him the Navy was waiting for translations of Philippine environmental laws. Philippine laws are written and published in English.

Mr. Ray concluded that environmental policies were largely ignored at the US bases. He expressed concern for the health of US Defense Department personnel and their families at Subic and recommended toxicity screening.

EMMANUEL also tried to visit Subic. "We were not allowed into Subic so we investigated the area surrounding the base," Emmanuel says. "Our studies indicate that we should be very concerned with toxic waste left behind as well as contaminated areas in the baselands due to fuel leaks, unexploded ordnance, etc."

Emmanuel's study could provide evidence of lingering problems acknowledged in confidential reports prepared by the US government.

"The Air Force and the Navy have identified significant environmental damage to their facilities in the Philippines," the January 1992 GAO report says.

The report adds: "The fuel and chemicals used in firefighting exercises seep directly into the soil and water table, and at the Navy facility, the overflow goes directly into Subic Bay.... Sewage and process waste waters from the naval base and air station industrial complexes are discharged directly into Subic Bay....

"Lead and other heavy metals from the ship repair facility's sandblasting site drain directly into the bay or are buried in the landfill. Neither procedure complies with US standards.... The Subic Bay Navy facility's power plant contains unknown amounts of PCBs and emits untreated pollutants directly into the air.... Officials stated that air emissions would not meet US clean-air standards." This contamination also would be against Philippine law.

The report concludes: "At the time of our review the Air Force and Navy had no plans to clean up these sites.... The current basing agreement does not impose any well-defined environmental re-sponsibility on the United States either while it operates the base or for cleanup upon withdrawal."

Most alarming is PCB contamination at Clark Air Base as detailed in a September 1991 US Air Force document obtained by UUSC through a US Freedom of Information Act request: "Four cleanup attempts in the transformer vault of building 7509 have failed to reduce the Polychlorinated Biphenyl [PCB] levels below the standard 10 micrograms per 100 square centimeters (ugm/cm2) of surface area. The results of the six most recent swipe samples on the wall ranged from 13.2 to 62.1 ugm/cm2.... No further actions wil l be taken by the USAF."

The US military generates more than 400 tons of hazardous waste in the US each year, based on a Department of Defense Environmental Status Report. Data about hazardous wastes at foreign base sites are more difficult to come by. After protests by environmental groups, the US has implemented some cleanup actions in other countries where they have abandoned bases.

"The irony is that the US may well end up paying for the cleanup of its toxic mess in Germany, Japan, and other rich countries," Emmanuel says, "but leave the Philippines - a country with neither the money nor the technology to deal with toxic contamination - to cope with its toxic legacy."

IF the toxic waste problem is as serious as these reports suggest, the question of who pays for the cleanup could affect future US-Philippine relations, including discussions of US military access to Subic and Manila's plans to convert the facility to a commercial port.

"Before these bases can be converted to civilian and productive uses, an environmental investigation, cleanup, and restoration of the baselands are necessary to ensure that the areas will not further threaten human health and the environment," Emmanuel says.

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