A top U.S. Air Force official leading talks for a divert airfield project in the CNMI said the CNMI and Air Force’s disagreements over the project’s impacts on historical sites may be “subjective,” and hopefully would be ironed out in consultation that began in this week.
Air Force officials and consulting parties from the Inos administration and CNMI Historic Preservation Office, among others, are holding meetings this week that began Tuesday and continue into today.
The meetings come following a letter of “non-concurrence” last week from the CNMI government on the Air Force’s findings on impacts to historical sites on Saipan.
Col. Michael R. Cardoza, U.S. Air Force chief of Strategy and Plans Division, told reporters that their divert project has been reduced in scope, requiring a smaller plot of land on Saipan.
Cardoza disclosed that the Air Force first received a letter concurring with USAF findings in August that was revoked by the CNMI a couple of days later. A letter of non-concurrence eventually followed in October.
“That’s one of reasons why we are here to talk about why we got a non-concurrence, why we were able to get a concurrence on our 2012 proposal and not get concurrence on a greatly reduced scope? Those are the details we are working out this week, as to why they did not concur with our findings of effect,” he said.
In their August findings, the Air Force found that the proposed action would have no direct adverse effect on contributing elements to the Aslito/Isley Field, the Saipan Landing Beaches [a national historical landmark], Aslito/Isley Field, Marpi Point National Historic Landmark, or other historic properties on Saipan.
But in their letter last week, HPO took issue with PACAF’s method of analysis, which sticks to labeling and identifying effects as “direct or indirect.” According to the HPO letter, that is not the issue at hand, as federal historic preservation law requires federal agencies like the military to “resolves the potential adverse effects of their program.”
“Really, the non-concurrence is based on the feeling that our findings of potential impacts, they don’t agree with that,” Cardoza said. “They feel that there is going to be more impacts than we are identifying, and that’s why we are here this week to talk through those…to find what the impacts are going to be.
“We previously had concurrence so we want to understand what has changed, what has changed in 2012, what changed when we got the concurrence letter to a couple of days later when we did have a disagreement.”
He said the Air Force team on island is going to work with historic preservation experts through “each potential impact one by one and identify what we feel the impacts may be and what they feel the impacts may be and hopefully come to a mutual agreement on what we call a programmatic agreement.”
One major concern from HPO is that the divert infrastructure would ruin the historic setting of World War II bunkers on Saipan. Cardoza disagrees, saying the Air Force made sure its project is going to “deconflict” from those bunkers.
“We are not going to affect them. We are not going to build over them…anything like that. But there are some subjective things we need to look at. Are we impacting the ‘feel’ of those historical sites? That’s the part we have to work on. There are some very objective facts that we have to say ‘there’s an impact’ or ‘there is not an impact,’ but there is also some very subjective factors and that’s where we’ll probably have the differences. Just the fact that we are going to be on the airfield, is that going to impact historic sites?”
In their letter last week, HPO said the Air Force had incorrectly gauged the potential effects of a divert airfield on Saipan on historical properties.
“On an island the size of 44 square miles, the proposed construction and operation activities will cause significant adverse effects to recognized historical properties,” wrote HPO. “The construction and operational activities at the seaport and airport and the fuel transfer transportation route to and from the airport are all directly situated in the ‘heart’ of Saipan’s commercial and tourism districts.”
HPO detailed the effects of a proposed parking apron on two historical bunkers from World War II situated along the taxiway of the Saipan airport in an open field of grass with security fence off in the distance. HPO says these two bunkers are situated in highly visible and a prominent location at the Saipan landmark. Passengers departing or arriving on aircraft at the airport pass directly by these bunkers either on the way to and from the arrival/departure gates, HPO said.
“PACAF’s plan to build an apron near and/or around the bunkers (or, moving the apron a small number of feet) and to refuel jets parking on the apron when the field is in use will have direct effects… [Building] will affect the integrity and physical interpretation” of the landmark, HPO said.
On proposed fuel storage and delivery systems, HPO objected to the construction that they say will “more than double the amount” of property currently used at the landmark to store fuel.
The proposed pipeline will be situated or pass within a small number of “feet” of two additional bunkers and only yards away from the NHLD’s most outstanding historical Japanese military buildings, HPO wrote.
HPO says the fuel storage will close-off and fence-in a large amount of “open space” at the landmark, as the area where it is being proposed is a completely unrestricted area and an common site for people on weekends and during holidays to picnic, exercise, or run through.
HPO also noted that the divert project’s parking apron, fuel storage facility, and maintenance building would all be built on B-29 hardstands or the landmark’s taxiway both inside and outside the airports security fence within the NHLD. HPO says this construction “right on top” of these features is further evidence of a direct adverse effect that would “conceal or shroud portions of historic properties in the NHLD.”
“While PACAF maintains that the hardstands are deteriorated and not recognizable, they nonetheless still form the basic network and fabric that ties the landscape setting together under the theme of the NHLD…They are significant historical components within the boundary of the Saipan’s NHLD, devoted to the bygone airfield activities which will be directly impacted by the proposed project,” HPO said.