- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 27, 2016

HONOLULU (AP) - Community members and an environmental group sued the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense and the secretary of defense Wednesday over a plan to turn two Pacific islands into live-fire testing sites.

The plan calls for using the islands of Tinian and Pagan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands for military war games.

Earthjustice attorneys, who are representing complainants including the Center for Biological Diversity and local community organizations, argue the training would disrupt Tinian communities and prevent Pagan’s native people from returning to their home island, which was evacuated 35 years ago after a volcanic eruption.

The groups filed the lawsuit in federal court in Saipan.

They allege the Navy failed to consider all of the potential effects on residents and the environment as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, and it didn’t weigh more suitable locations for the war games.

The military already uses a small plot on Tinian for sniper training, the lawsuit says. The small island has about 3,000 residents, mostly low-income indigenous Chamorro people.

Expanding military training there would expose residents to “high-decibel training noise, permanent loss of 15 percent of the island’s prime farmland soils, destruction of cultural and historic sites, and severe restrictions on access to traditional fishing grounds, cultural sites and recreational beaches,” the lawsuit says.

Calls seeking comment from the Navy and Defense Department were not immediately returned.

Pagan, meanwhile, would become a “militarized wasteland,” attorneys said.

The training would destroy native forests, coral reefs and wildlife on the remote volcanic island. And the indigenous Chamorro and Refaluwasch families who once called Pagan home would be prevented from returning, attorneys said.

Cinta Kaipat of PaganWatch, one of the groups suing, said she has family members who had to flee Pagan when the volcano erupted in 1981.

“Many of us want to return,” Kaipat said. “For those who lived there, Pagan remains their homeland. We do not want to see it obliterated by the military.”

Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said the military decided to move about 5,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam in 2010, then in 2013 said it needed more training space. The Navy provided a draft environmental impact statement on its latest plan last year, he said, and a final report is expected in 2018.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service asked University of Hawaii professor Michael Hadfield to conduct research on Pagan. He and some colleagues went to the island and did an inventory of its plants and wildlife.

They found many endemic species as well as endangered tree snails and fruit bats. But they also noted that archaeological sites prove human habitation on the island dates back more than 2,000 years, he said.

“I left with a really strong impression of a dramatically beautiful island, an island with a cultural history, an island with a lot of intact native biology,” Hadfield told The Associated Press in an interview in May. “And my experience, of course, in Hawaii is that that kind of thing simply would not survive a massive military takeover, especially the kind of bombardment the Navy has in mind.”

The military has used other Pacific islands for testing in the past. The Navy used the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe as a bombing range for decades starting in World War II.

It later joined with the state and spent more than $400 million on cleanup. However, live grenades and bombs are still scattered across about a quarter of Kahoolawe, and the 45-square-mile island remains mostly off-limits.

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