CHamoru activist group Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian (PLSR) has filed a federal lawsuit against the United States Air Force “for its plans to burn and detonate approximately 35,000 pounds of bombs, munitions, and hazardous waste in the open air on Tarague Beach . . . less than 200 feet from the Pacific Ocean,” according to nonprofit organization Earthjustice.
Earthjustice will be representing PLSR in the case, who argues that the Air Force has violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
According to David Henkin, an attorney for Earthjustice, the Act “requires all federal agencies, including the military, to take a hard look at the impacts of the activities they want to carry out and equally importantly, look at different ways that they can do what they want to do in a way that would be safer for the environment, safer for the people and the culture here in Guam.”
In an interview with PNC, Henkin alleges that the Air Force had not complied “with all the laws associated with that kind of hazardous activity” when they applied for a Hazardous Waste Management Facility Permit from the Guam Environmental Protection Agency (GEPA).
According to Thien Chau, another attorney for Earthjustice, the Air Force should be aware of alternate technologies to treat safer munitions than open detonation and open burning. Chau referenced a 2019 report released by the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering in consultation with the military that confirmed that military sites were already utilizing alternative technologies to treat munitions.
Chau says he was surprised that the US Air Force did not consider or mention any public records that showed that the Air Force looked into these alternatives.
According to the Earthjustice, without first considering alternate ways to dispose of munitions, proceeding with open burning and open detonation poses contamination threats to Tarague’s surrounding air, water, and land, as the process releases toxic chemicals.
Importance to Culture and Resource
Research indicates the importance of Tarague’s natural resources as the ancient CHamoru people living in Tarague accessed fresh drinking water from the Northern Guam lens aquifer. Furthermore, that aquifer currently supplies 80% of Guam’s fresh drinking water.
Additionally, Tarague holds deep cultural significance to the CHamoru people, as archeological evidence indicates extensive human occupation from the early pre-latte to the later latte phase. Furthermore, many CHamoru families owned land in Tarague before the military seized it after WWII.
“This is an area of land that was taken from CHamoru families . . . by eminent domain,” said PLSR Program Director Monaeka Flores. “Just the taking of this land has already drastically impacted our relationships to land, our connections to land, and our genealogies.
“Now this violence on the land will impact the ways people fish, impact the ways people collect medicine, and also potentially harm the land. In the case that the military decides to return the land to the original landowners, it would make the land so heavily contaminated that it would make it unsafe.”
Henkin added that the lawsuit seeks to force the US Air Force to withdraw their current application with GEPA, to facilitate the legally required public discussion about their proposal and its impacts to Guam, and to formulate a collaborative plan beneficial to all parties involved.
Rachel Taimanao-Ayuyu, an attorney for the Guam Council, echoed Henkin’s sentiment saying that the complaint in the litigation underscores the need for Guam’s community to know what’s happening with the land so they could voice their opinion and partake in the process itself.
Henkin adds that PLSR and Earthjustice had reached out to the Air Force two months ago to let them know that there has been no word about an environmental review for a potential hazardous waste facility.
“They haven’t responded in any way,” said Henkin. “Now that there’s a lawsuit on file, they will have to respond, but I just need to emphasize: The Air Force–their duty is to protect us. So, we would encourage them, rather than fight about this in court, just do the right thing.”