Senate Floor Leader Pete P. Reyes urged the Tenorio administration to sue the U.S. military in a bid to seek compensation for victims of the contamination of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) chemical in Tanapag which can cause cancer and other health problems.
The lawsuit will also force the military to clean up areas on the island with high concentration of dangerous chemicals it left more than three decades ago, including old fuel tanks believed to have polluted groundwater resources, he said in an interview Friday.
“I will encourage the government to begin legal steps to force the military to live up to its responsibilities,” Reyes said as he noted that the Legislature drew attention to the problems some eight years go, but there has been no concrete action from the U.S. government.
“It seems to me that the lives of the people in the CNMI are of very little significance to the military,” added the senator.
The contamination in Tanapag, which has spread to the Lower Base Cemetery, has triggered fresh concerns on public health and safety of the area from the island government in recent weeks following complaints from residents.
Last week, Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio ordered the cemetery off-limits to the public in an effort to prevent the contamination from becoming a serious health hazard as he expressed concern on the presence of PCBs through toxic waste left way back in the ’60s.
A contractor hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began over the weekend installation of temporary measures to cover the contaminated area ahead of a plan to seek long-term solutions.
But Reyes said the numerous appeals made by the Commonwealth ever since the problem broke out have been largely ignored, citing that there were other areas not “completely cleaned up.”
Residents have come out in the open recently with serious health problems and some of them have developed cancer — a condition that has burdened local families financially, according to the senator.
“If families are affected directly, then they should be compensated,” added Reyes.
He compared the situation to the contamination at Bikini islands where atomic bomb tests have been conducted by the U.S. government. Some residents in the entire Republic of Marshalls have received compensation for health impact and other consequences of the bombing practice.
“This is not different from the contamination in Tanapag,” the senator explained. “The administration should assert its rights so that the military will be forced to take its responsibilities seriously.”
While lawmakers are ready to help the governor take a stronger stance on the issue, Reyes said it will be up to the executive branch to bring the matter to court.
Abandoned electrical capacitors in Tanapag that were used by the military resulted in PCB and dioxin contamination in the village, endangering people’s health. They have been there since the 1960s, but it was only in 1988 that the Division of Environmental Quality was notified.
Studies show PCBs caused cancer in animals and that people exposed to the chemical for a long time can experience nose, lung and skin irritation.