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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Toxic Legacy of Subic Bay

Air Date: Week of

Reese Erlich reports from Subic Bay in the Philippines on the toxic waste the US Navy left behind. Environmental activists say that the site of the Subic Bay Navy Base is full of hazardous waste. But there is concern that overreacting to the problem will hurt an economy already suffering from the Navy's withdrawal.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

War, and the preparation for war, can lead to all kinds of pollution, from radioactivity to chemical poisons. Here in the US, the military has left a legacy of environmental damage that will cost billions of dollars to clean up. And the legacy may extend overseas as well.

When the US pulled out of Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Navy Base in the former US colony of the Philippines in 1992, the Defense Department said no serious toxic hazards had been left behind, and that all Philippine environmental laws had been complied with. But some Filipino and American environmental activists say that may not be the case. Reese Ehrlich reports from Subic Bay.

(Sounds from a busy Filipino street)

EHRLICH: The road leading into the former Subic Ban Navy Base used to be jammed with bars, brothels, and nightclubs. After 90 years, the sailors are finally gone. But they are slowly being replaced by tourists and commercial traffic. The base is being transformed into a huge industrial freeport designed to attract foreign investors. Refurbished old Navy buildings already house businesses, from a shoe factory to a casino. But there are also less useful relics of the past.

On a tour of the base, a guide points out a huge vacant lot piled with debris.

(Sounds of the base: engines, air flow)

GUIDE: That's the landfill area, through the scraps and metals, and the Mount Pinatubo ash. The Department of Environmental and Natural Resources checked this base, and then it has been approved that there are no toxic wastes left by the Americans.

EHRLICH: Well, not quite. After a cursory inspection, Philippine officials did give an environmental go-ahead. But now, some environmentalists are questioning that decision. A recent report by the US General Accounting Office found that the base has numerous toxic hazards. They include chemicals that seep directly into the groundwater, and raw sewage and heavy metals that flush directly into the bay. The GAO says a cleanup at Subic may cost upwards of $25 million. However, nobody knows exactly how bad the problem is.

CULLEN: Well now we're standing, looking over Subic Bay. We can see Granby Island out there...

EHRLICH: Father Shea Cullen has lived near the Subic Base for over 25 years. He's a longstanding critic of the US military and its allies in the Philippine government.

CULLEN: That's the area of great concern when it comes to the toxic waste problem, because when I was traveling there many years ago I was made very much aware of the presence of drums of toxic chemicals, which were in open storage. And we often wondered what happened to them, or what happened to leaking drums, you know? If there's any records that they were ever actually shipped back to the States...

EHRLICH: That's the kind of information sought by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in Boston. So far, by using the Freedom of Information Act, the group has found Navy documents indicating Subic generated upwards of 500 tons of hazardous waste in both 1990 and 1991 - but only safely disposed of 20% of that amount. The Navy and US Embassy in Manila have denied leaving any serious toxic wastes at Subic. They say the US government complied with all relevant Philippine environmental laws, and was not required to adhere to more stringent US regulations. Activists dispute that legal claim, but in any case, they hold the US morally responsible for any toxic hazards. They are calling for an immediate investigation before foreign companies set up factories on potentially contaminated sites. Such demands aren't welcome at the office of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, which oversees development at the base. Richard Gordon chairs the SBMA.

(Office sounds)

GORDON: I don't think that the waste is a very big problem here. The Navy was pretty careful, this being a foreign country that they have occupied by lease for a period of time. And they, I thought some of them were pretty responsible people out there.

EHRLICH: Gordon says the SBMA is trying to restore some of the 40,000 Filipino jobs lost when the US Navy pulled out. Exaggerating the toxic threat, he says, will only scare away much-needed foreign investment. Senator Orlando Mercado disagrees. he heads the Senate Security and National Defense Committee. He says military bases inside the US have caused massive ecological damage despite stringent US environmental laws. He argues US procedures in the Philippines were even worse. The US is now spending hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up the American military bases. Senator Mercado asks, why should Subic and the former US air base at Clark Field be any different?

MERCADO: If you sweep aside the issue of environmental concern because of your desire to attract investments, you are going to pay dearly for it, and the restoration effort, costly as it is, will never be able to bring back what you lose. I think it is more wise for us to really confront this issue openly. For us to go to the other extreme and pretend and whistle in the dark and pretend that it doesn't exist is a folly.

EHRLICH: Senator Mercado says the toxics could create a health hazard for Subic workers, as well as potential legal liability for employers. In response to increasing pressure from Mercado and others, Subic authorities have applied for a World Bank loan to study the toxic problem. But so far, critics have not mustered enough evidence or political clout to slow redevelopment of the base. If, however, old Navy documents or future tests reveal widespread toxic pollution, that could quickly change. For Living on Earth, I'm Reese Ehrlich at Subic Bay, the Philippines.



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