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

Panama's Litter of Yankee Armaments

Air Date: Week of

As the U.S. prepares to return the canal which bears its country's namesake to Panama, Panamanians are expressing their concerns that the Yankees are also leaving behind the dangerous litter of lethal armaments from their war exercises. Joe Rubin prepared this report.


CURWOOD: At the beginning of the 20th century, President Teddy Roosevelt and the 57th Congress had enough political will and financial resources to complete one of the greatest engineering feats in human history, the Panama Canal. As the century comes to a close, the US is set to return the canal and surrounding lands to Panama after using them for commerce and to hold war games and test weapons. But there are complaints that the US isn't planning to leave the land quite the way it found it. Joe Rubin explains.

(Tropical bird calls and cock crows)

RUBIN: On the outskirts of Panama City, in the squatter community of Cerro Sylvestre, Algis Amores sits outside his makeshift concrete block home and tells the story that changed his life. Ten years ago Algis and 2 relatives were collecting scrap metal on a nearby US military firing range to earn a few dollars. Hidden among their daily harvest was a small unexploded mortar shell.

SAMORAS: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: He says that they had the whatever it was, they didn't know exactly at the time what it was. It was together with the cans, which they were used to just squishing with their foot, and then it just happened to explode.

RUBIN: Algis lost a leg and hand in the ensuing explosion. His cousin and brother in law were killed. According to the Panamanian Foreign Ministry, at least 200 Panamanians have been maimed and 21 killed after coming in contact with UXOs. That's what the US military calls the unexploded shells and mines that are left on firing ranges after war games or weapons tests. Military policy is to find and remove unexploded ordinances, but Panama's environment makes that a difficult task.

ELTON: You also have situation where you have this rainfall, you have very, very high temperatures. You have perfect conditions for corrosion.

RUBIN: Charlotte Elton is with the Panamanian social service organization CEASPA.

ELTON: There's a lot of washout. There's a lot of change in the terrain. The likelihood of some of these unexploded ordinance ending up somewhere different from where it first was is also very high. We have kids killed who were playing in water courses and stuff like that, not actually on the firing ranges.

(Clicking sounds; a man calls out)

RUBIN: On the edge of a lush tropical rainforest, just a mile from the banks of the Panama Canal, Marines are testing a new machine gun on the Empire Firing Range. It's one of 3 active US firing ranges in Panama, a country that served as the US military's tropical testing center for more than 80 years. Today the area that surrounds the firing ranges are the fastest-growing in Panama. About 100,000 mostly poor Panamanians live nearby. And the worry is that once the US turns over the Panama Canal and the surrounding 90,000 acres of US-controlled lands to Panama next year, people will move on the abandoned firing ranges to plant crops and search for scrap metal. Under the 1977 Panama Canal treaty, the US agreed to clear the ranges of all weapons before returning the land. Despite a 1999 deadline, clean-up operations got underway just this year. And now the Army says it plans to clean up only about 10% of the ranges. Colonel David Hunt is in charge of the treaty implementation, and he says the US effort is in line with the spirit of the document.

HUNT: The treaty states that we will do, prior to turnover, everything that is practicable to ensure the removal of all hazards to human health, life, and safety. Panama agreed to that, understanding that we could not do a 100% clean-up.

RUBIN: Some estimates say a complete clean-up of the firing ranges could cost up to $100 million. But Colonel Hunt says the limited clean-up isn't about money. It's about concern for the ecology of Panama.

HUNT: To go in and to thoroughly clean it out, if you had unlimited amounts of money, would require tearing down the entire forest before you dug down 10 to 15 feet looking for everything. The damage to the environment would be incredible. The damage to the canal would be serious.

(Machine gun fire. Man's voice-over: "The ranges are often perceived to be frightening places, areas of destruction and environmental degradation. But for those who've had the opportunity to see or study what lies beyond the gates and signs, the ranges are known for their beauty and biodiversity, and they're recognized as one of the most significant nature preserves in the world." Tropical-sounding music follows.)

RUBIN: This video is part of the US military's campaign to sell its limited clean-up plan. Some call the effort "greenwash." Rodreigo Noriega of Panama's Foreign Ministry claims the US is playing games with the fine print in the treaty. And he says if the US was serious about the fragility of the rainforest, it would stop its daily bombing exercises.

NORIEGA: It doesn't make that much of any sense to say on the one hand, these areas are so valuable, so important, so filled with environmental wealth, environmental richness, and on the other hand saying well, A.) we cannot clean them, but B.) we'll keep bombing them.

RUBIN: While the issue of unexploded weapons has grabbed much of the headlines, Rick Stauber believes it's just the tip of the iceberg. Stauber spent 20 years in the Army as a bomb disposal expert. He's now an international consultant on firing range and base clean-ups. In 1995 he was hired by the US military to recommend a clean-up plan for Panama. But from the outset, Stauber felt the Pentagon wasn't interested in an independent investigation.

STAUBER: We got it in briefing by an engineering colonel, and his first words out of his mouth was that we've already determined the extent of your report and we want you to support these findings. And he basically had them up on a flip chart, and lined out exactly how he wanted the report to be written.

RUBIN: Stauber says the Pentagon wanted him to investigate only 3 specific areas: the Pina, Empire, and Balboa firing ranges. But Stauber kept finding disturbing evidence that unexploded chemical weapons tested elsewhere in Panama were leaking.

STAUBER: What happens in a tropical climate is that chemical munitions are very corrosive, and they'll develop leaks. And the information that is out of the National Archives and other information that is readily obtainable indicates that a high rate of leaks developed with the chemical munitions that were stored at Panama.

RUBIN: Stauber says that for him the next logical step was to get out in the field and investigate. But he says the military stopped him in his tracks.

STAUBER: I was basically flatly given an order that I would not go out and site-investigate any areas involved in this report.

RUBIN: A US Embassy spokesman in Panama dismissed Stauber's accusations. But Stauber was so upset by what he felt was a cover-up of the chemical weapons problem in Panama that he decided to get in touch with the San Francisco-based Fellowship for Reconciliation. The group's director, John Lindsey Poland, was at the time doing his own investigation, and last month, along with Greenpeace and the Chemical Weapons Working Group, issued a report called Test Tube Republic. The report charges that the US is in violation of the International Chemical Weapons Treaty for lack of disclosure in Panama. Much of the chemical weapons testing took place in Panama Bay, on San Jose Island in the 1940s. And Lindsey is convinced the chemical weapons are still in the jungles.

LINDSAY: The rate is about 5 to 10% unexploded ordinance, both for conventional and for chemical munitions. So on San Jose, for example, the cases that we were able to document, there were about 4,000 munitions that were dropped. So that would mean that there were several hundred chemical munitions that did not explode. When I visited San Jose Island in July, I did see leftover bombs, also other kinds of containers, that were just sitting out in a field, and some of them in the woods.

RUBIN: When asked about San Jose Island, Army Colonel David Hunt acknowledged that chemical weapons testing was conducted there up until 1947.

HUNT: When we left the island, we left warnings that people should not go onto the island. There are now people living there, they want to develop it. There are a lot of rumors about it, but the fact is that people live on the island. There is plenty of flora and fauna on the island. Are there hazards out there? We're still doing the research. But people live there.

RUBIN: Outgoing US Ambassador to Panama, William Hughes, says he's working with Panamanian officials to come up with a long-term firing range management plan. Hughes said that education programs and security for the ranges were being discussed. But he stopped short of committing US funds for range clean-up beyond 1999. It's unclear whether the Clinton Administration and Congress will allocate the millions of dollars that the government of Panama says is needed for an environmentally sound, multi-year clean-up. With several firing ranges in the US also vying for clean-up funds, the prospect appears unlikely. For Living on Earth, I'm Joe Rubin.



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