January 2003

Radioactive Dump on Wildlife Refuge Raises Liability Concerns

The New York Times, Washington, January 27, 2003
By Katharine Q. Seelye

[Posted 30/01/2003]

In the 1950's and 60's, the United States Air Force conducted 12 test launchings of nuclear missiles on tiny Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. In 1962, two of the shots were aborted and the missiles exploded over the runway, drenching the area in radioactive contaminants.

In November, 40 years after those two failed missions, the Air Force finished burying thousands of cubic meters of plutonium-contaminated waste in a 25-acre landfill on the atoll. In 2004, the military is to leave the atoll, which was designated a wildlife refuge in 1926, in the care of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

But the Fish and Wildlife Service is worried about potential liability from the radioactive dump and is not particularly enthused about the duties of caring for the atoll, a nesting ground for green sea turtles, a habitat for 300 species of fish and an essential resting ground for 20 species of migratory birds.

The wildlife service's regional director, Anne Badgley, wrote to the military in July that the plutonium-contaminated waste in the landfill "should be shipped off-island to a radioactive waste facility."

So before the Defense Department can turn over the property, it has to negotiate with wildlife officials the delineation of responsibilities in case the landfill erodes or is breached and the toxic material leaks out.

The United States used Johnston's four islands, totaling just 690 acres less than 800 miles southwest of Honolulu, not only to test nuclear missiles, but also to store and incinerate nerve gas and chemical weapons until 2000. Now, environmental organizations say, the Defense Department is leaving the island to stew in its own lethal juices.

John F. Ahearne, former chairman of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and now a lecturer in risk and regulation at Duke University, said it was difficult to assess whether the development of nuclear weapons was worth long-term environmental contamination.

"You can never know if developing the weapons prevented a large-scale nuclear war," Mr. Ahearne said. "But you can say that developing the weapons led to a lot of environmental problems that we're working very hard to figure out what to do with, and it will take decades and a lot of money to clean it up."

While the Department of Energy alone has spent more than $70 billion over the last 13 years to address the environmental legacy of the arms race, he said, that actual cleanup was difficult.

Johnston Atoll is just one of hundreds of sites where the government used nuclear weapons and produced nuclear waste. While Johnston's waste may be comparatively remote, environmental organizations are worried about the potential threat it poses, in part because much of Johnston Island is landfill itself, expanded more than 10 times its original size to accommodate a launch pad.

The Earth Foundation, an environmental group based in Maui, says that during hurricanes the atoll can be completely submerged. And a Pentagon study says the island's sea wall will fail in less than 50 years. Roy Smith, an environmental engineer in Hawaii, said that because of the rough weather and the fact that the landfill is unlined, "at some point, the whole load is going to fall into the ocean."

The foundation said that the contaminants could be absorbed by fish and carried by ocean currents to the coasts of Hawaii, California, Japan and South America. These fears prompted the foundation and the Fish and Wildlife Service to propose shipping the material to a repository in the continental United States, like the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M.

In the 1980's, several contaminated structures on the island were dismantled and sent to the Nevada Test Site for burial.

"We don't normally have wildlife refuges that have a plutonium landfill," said Don Palawski, project leader of the Pacific Remote Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, based in Honolulu, which oversees eight islands, including Johnston, for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a branch of the Defense Department, conducted public hearings on Johnston's problem and rejected the idea of shipping more waste to the United States. The agency said the radioactivity was too low to harm humans or to justify the estimated $55 million it could cost to move the waste.

Instead, the military spent $1.5 million to create a landfill on the island and buried the waste there.

Now the Defense Threat Reduction Agency is conducting an ecological risk assessment of the area, and, with the Fish and Wildlife Service, is trying to develop a memorandum of understanding before the service assumes control of the dump.

"From our standpoint," said Mr. Palawski of the Fish and Wildlife Service, "we need a few things: a physical monitoring of the landfill to ensure its integrity over the long term, to ensure that we don't have any plutonium to which humans could be exposed years from now; a long-term agreement on liability and responsibility; and if it leaks, we don't want to be responsible for putting it back in the landfill. We want to be able to get on the phone and say, `We have a little issue here, and we want you to come and fix it.' "

Harry Stumpf, a geologist and oceanographer with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and program manager for the Johnston project, said: "The levels of plutonium and radioactivity are so low as to present no significant risk to either humans, wildlife or plant life."

Mr. Stumpf also said he had "no concern whatsoever" about leaks. "The material is two to three times denser than lead," he said. "If it got into the water at all, all it would do is sink." He said that because the risk is so low, the Defense Department "is not likely to fund any sea wall maintenance or repair."

Nonetheless, he said, at the request of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the landfill was capped and compacted with extra soil so birds would not be harmed if they burrowed into it.

And he is working on the memorandum of understanding on how the site should be managed in case of problems.

"We recognize that every particle of plutonium out there has our name on it," he said. "We'll never be off the hook for liability. If by some chance something gets exposed at the surface, if the sea wall fails and the landfill collapses, Fish and Wildlife is supposed to give us a call and we'll take appropriate action at that point. We know we'll never be able to wash our hands of that."

Back to contents