When US Hands Over Bases to Panama, It May Leave Environmental Mess Behind

Looking at the thick tropical forest cover on one of the main firing ranges of the United States Southern Command in Panama, chemical contamination is not the first thing that comes to mind.

But as the 1999 handover of US military installations nears, questions are being raised as to the nature of the thousands of tests - from combat boots to mustard gas - conducted around the former Canal Zone and the possible effects on health and the environment.

"Just about everything that was used in Vietnam would have been tested in Panama," says Rick Stauber, a former bomb-disposal expert who until recently was one of the top environmental auditors for Department of Defense base-cleanup studies.

Mr. Stauber was the technical author of a 1996 Department of Defense report into munitions contamination on present and former US installations in Panama. He says his contract wasn't renewed after he objected to omissions in the final report.

Initially, he says, the report was to be a study of all US bases in and outside the former Canal Zone, a five-mile-wide area on both sides of the Panama Canal that will revert from US to Panamanian control in 1999. He says the guidelines were changed, and he was only allowed to study records on the three firing ranges of Balboa West, Pinas, and Empire Range. He describes the Southern Command's cooperation as "less than helpful."

The report was handed to the Defense Department in April 1996, but was not turned over to Panama until March 1997. References to usage of chemical weapons were omitted from the final draft, Stauber says.

The US denies this. "There were no projectiles [with any chemical substance] fired on any of the ranges," says US Ambassador to Panama William Hughes.

Under the terms of the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Panama Canal Treaty, "the US shall be obliged to take all measures to ensure insofar as may be practicable that every hazard to human life, health, and safety is removed." The United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention, which was recently signed by the US, also requires cleanup of any contamination.

The issue gained public attention recently when a US Southern Command spokesman told Reuters that depleted-uranium shells and nerve gas had been tested, but not fired, at the US Army Tropic Test Site, a few miles from Panama City.

Depleted-uranium testing

Stauber says during his investigation he was handed a report, listing all US weapon testing from the 1960s to the early 1990s, that showed that 120mm depleted-uranium projectiles were fired on Empire Range. Ambassador Hughes denies Stauber's claim, and says the ordnance was shipped back to the US.

Another reference in the same report lists a "function test" of a VX nerve-gas mine, Stauber says. "I don't want to see some kid dig one of these mines, [and] kill himself and a hundred others," he adds.

Hughes dismisses Stauber's claims as "conjecture" and "supposition." The diplomat adds that he has "no knowledge" of any such test. "It's not a part of the ranges ... it happens to be a separate center altogether, a laboratory center, and it's not where they conduct the firing of ammunition."

In April, Panama's foreign ministry sent a "memo of understanding" to the US. In it, the ministry requested full disclosure of test sites, as well as an agreement to clean up any residue.

Request for clean-up

Rodrigo Noriega, Panama's chief base-cleanup negotiator based in Panama City, says he is pushing for the US to extend its environmental responsibilities past 1999 and to commit to clean up reverted areas "as long as threats are present, and that no area, inside or outside the former Canal Zone, be excluded."

Weapons contamination or dumps are suspected in many areas that have already been handed over to Panama, including San Jos Island, Rio Hato Air Base, and France Field airport in Colon. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, San Jos Island was used for the "San Jos Project." A US Army report declassified in 1993 lists extensive testing of British and US mustard-gas bombs and other chemical agents, some of which were tested on US troops.

Panama's foreign ministry estimates that 21 people have been killed by unexploded ordnance on ranges since 1979, and scores more have been injured. Analysts estimate that there are thousands of unexploded shells, land mines, hand grenades, and other explosives, on reverted and unreverted lands.

"We don't know where there could be other contamination, because during World War II, the US [Army] militarized Panama from David [in the north] to Darien [in the south]," says David Galvez, an activist with Environmental Defense in Panama City.

A US pacifist group, Fellowship for Reconciliation, is calling for the establishment of a binational environmental center (which has also been proposed by Panama), full disclosure of classified documen- tation, and a suspension of negotiations to keep US armed forces in Panama after 1999.

Meanwhile, as allegations persist, the dangers remain. "If it's buried out there, sooner or later, someone will come across it," Stauber says.

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