Dump on Wildlife Refuge Raises Liability Concerns
The New York Times, Washington, January 27,
By Katharine Q. Seelye
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
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
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
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