The additional 60 days the U.S. Department of Defense gave for the CNMI to review a draft environmental impact statement on the U.S. military’s plans for the Commonwealth is a welcome development but ultimately it is not enough.
This seems to the consensus of CNMI officials and leaders regarding the extension for the draft EIS on proposed joint military training on Tinian and Pagan, which includes live-firing exercises.
The CNMI government earlier asked for a six-month extension or 180 days.
Gov. Eloy S. Inos, in a statement, said he is “grateful to the Department of Defense for accepting my request for an extension of the CJMT DEIS comment period and for recognizing that, for proposed actions of this size, more time for thorough analysis is merited.”
“We still have much work ahead of us in ensuring that the concerns and voice of the CNMI is heard during this important process,” he said.
Lt. Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres said he appreciates “DoD’s consideration in granting the CNMI an extension to the comment period.”
“However, DoD has been working on putting this project together for the past five years or so. Granting an additional 60 days is helpful, but ultimately it is not nearly enough time to adequately address the many serious issues contained within the draft EIS,” Torres said.
Not enough time
Delegate George Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) said that, while the Commonwealth was not granted its original request of 180 days, he is pleased that “we have at least 60 days more beyond the very short deadline originally imposed.”
A letter from Marine Corps Brig. Gen. David J. Furness notified Sablan of the decision to accept comments on the draft EIS until Aug. 4.
The letter was hand-delivered to Sablan’s Washington congressional office on Wednesday.
The original cut-off date for comment on the draft EIS was June 4.
“The original 60-day comment period to review a 1,388-page draft environmental impact statement and its 19 appendices was clearly insufficient,” Sablan said. “The military worked on the document for years. The public and public officials deserve more than just a few weeks to digest all that information and respond in a meaningful way.”
Sablan added that the “the decision to extend the comment period for another 60 days was the right thing for the Marine Corps to do.”
“But even that may not really be enough time given the scope of the proposed action and the complexity of the impacts on the Northern Mariana Islands.”
Furness, in his letter to Sablan, said the decision to extend for 60 days was the result of comments from the public hearings held on Tinian and Saipan and a request from Inos.
The Inos administration was recently provided with a grant of $250,000 to hire technical experts that will review and evaluate the draft EIS.
The funds came from a fiscal year 2015 technical assistance appropriation by Congress administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
But the DOI did not award the funds until a few days before the comment period began, leaving little time for the Commonwealth to advertise and contract for the technical services or for the contractors to review and prepare a response to the EIS.
The additional 60 days “gives a little more breathing room,” Sablan said. “But, realistically, even more time may be required, depending on how quickly the Commonwealth contracting process and the technical review can be completed.”
The National Environmental Policy Act, which requires an environmental impact statement for major federal actions significantly affecting the environment, provides a minimum of 45 days for public comment to a draft. The administering agency has authority to extend the comment period.
Asked if the 60-day extension period is enough, Rep. Angel A. Demapan (R-Saipan) said, “Absolutely not.”
“Where’s the equity here for the people of the CNMI? The military spent years on research and development of the draft EIS, yet now claim that our request for 180 days extension is too much to ask for. This is our home, so there’s no reason why we should be at the short end of the deal,” Demapan said.
He said the intent behind the request for extension was two-fold: to give the people of the Commonwealth ample time to digest the draft EIS/OEIS in its entirety, and to allow the Commonwealth to effectively avail of the grant funding from DOI to acquire the services of a qualified consultant to assist in the review and compilation of the government’s response.
“If we are not given the opportunity to achieve the intent of the grant funds, then the assistance awarded us by DOI would simply be an exercise in futility,” he said.
‘No change of heart’
For Northern Islands Mayor Jerome Aldan, the 60-day extension does little for those opposing the military exercises.
The mayor said the 60-day period may be good to “those who requested for the extension,” as it gives them “more room to put their inputs.”
But as far as he is concerned, Aldan said he will still continue to review the draft EIS and come up with comments by the original deadline.
He said the extension also seems to indicate that the military wants to “negotiate,” but as far as he and his constituents are concerned “there is no room for negotiations.”
“My position will never change,” Aldan stressed, saying that he’s reviewing the draft EIS in his own capacity.
“[The military] threw something at us, and perhaps we can also throw something at them,” Aldan said. “Even if don’t get the assistance, I’m still doing my job to try to understand the draft EIS,” noting that he is still waiting for the proposed funding for the review of the documents.
The Legislature earlier said $75,000 will be allocated to the Northern Islands Office of the Mayor to study the draft EIS.
Aldan re-emphasized his dismay of proposed plans to drop bombs on Pagan, which is part of the Northern Islands.
“No one can put a value on Pagan. So talks of the economic benefits to its people are just speculations,” he said.
Aldan said one only has to look at the other islands bombed by the military. “We must learn from these examples. Where are the economic benefits?” Aldan asked.
He is also glad to know that some of the CNMI agencies, including the Department of Lands and Natural Resources, are also doing their own studies on the draft EIS.