Marine Forces Pacific’s draft Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed military activities in the CNMI, particularly on Tinian and Pagan, calls for military aircraft to drop bombs in select targets on Pagan.
In a meeting with lawmakers Monday, Tim Robert, the CNMI Joint Military Training-EIS project team leader, said these bombs are “inert,” which means they are small and not highly explosive. A military battleship will also fire from the sea at designated targets on the island.
Robert, who was accompanied to the meeting by CJMT-EIS project manager Sherri Eng, said that unlike other training areas, there will only be one battleship, and not a fleet when the military trains on Pagan.
Aside from the military aircraft bombing of the island, Pagan will also host beach landing operations and amphibious landings, where vehicles, carrying military personnel from naval ships, can land on water and proceed to the beach.
There will also be mortar fire and nighttime training operations on Pagan, according to Robert.
In the proposed Tinian range and training areas or RTAs, the amount and variety of training would progressively increase over the 8- to 10-year construction period, culminating in the final 20 weeks proposed.
There will be four range complexes where live-fire high explosives from ground-based and aviation training activities would be employed.
Ground-based activities would include hand grenades thrown and launched from the Live Hand Grenade and Grenade Launcher ranges.
Aviation activities would use live munitions from machine guns and rockets and delivery of inert aviation ordnance at targets.
Another range would accommodate live-fire vehicle-mounted (e.g., tanks, fighting vehicles) training.
There will be an infantry battle course and urban assault. Aviation training would include takeoff and landing practice for fixed wing, helicopters, tilt-rotor aircraft, and unmanned aircraft (i.e., drones), drop (parachute) of personnel/cargo/equipment, aircraft refueling, and aviation command and control.
Airfield training would include airfield operations for training at Tinian International Airport, North Field, and on proposed Landing Zones.
As an example, Robert said, there will 155-mm high explosive munitions to be fired at the “high danger” areas on both Tinian and Pagan.
In all, there will 20 weeks of live-fire training on Tinian and 16 weeks of live-fire training on Pagan.
The EIS also said the potential increase in training reflects the maximum training capacity for each island. Potential future live-fire training could be accommodated up to a total of 45 weeks of training on Tinian and a total of 40 weeks of training on Pagan.
There will also be non-live-fire training (e.g., logistics training), and RTA maintenance and management functions would occur outside of the live-fire training durations throughout the year.
Major conflicts, terrorism, international lawlessness, natural disasters, and the current U.S. national strategy to focus on the Pacific theater have the potential to change the structure of military forces in the region and the required training frequency.
A 30-day review period of the draft EIS has been opened to the public. Comments will then be heard on separate hearings on April 29 on Saipan, April 30 on Tinian, again on Saipan on May 1.
What is the EIS?
In a nutshell, the EIS determines the environmental and socioeconomic effects of a federal agency’s proposed action on a specific location.
In the case of the CNMI Joint Military exercises, these actions includes setting up military installations where military activities will be conducted on select areas on Tinian and Pagan for a specified period of time.
Eng said the EIS was started in October 2012 and ended this month with the publication of a draft EIS.
Why draft an EIS?
Eng explained that the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, requires federal agencies to examine the potential effects of their proposed actions on the human environment, which includes the natural and physical environment and the relationship of people with that environment.
An EIS is a detailed public document that complies with the requirements of NEPA by assessing the potential effects a major federal action may have on the human environment.
The proposed action in this case is to establish a series of live-fire ranges, training courses, and maneuver areas within the CNMI to reduce existing joint service training deficiencies and meet the U.S. Pacific Command Service Components’ unfilled unit level and combined level training requirements in the Western Pacific.
The proposed action includes: construction, range management, expanded training and operations (to include combined arms, live-fire, and maneuver training at the unit and combined level), establishment of danger zones, designation of Special Use Airspace, and interest in land to support simultaneous and integrated training.
These actions are often called range and training areas or RTAs.
An RTA refers to live-fire ranges, training courses, maneuver areas, and associated support facilities, collectively, that are located near each other.
The EIS comes in to gauge what impacts these activities will have on the chosen locations.
An activity, say a bombing run on a site on Pagan or firing munitions on Tinian, will have an impact on the islands and the EIS essentially determines these impacts.
There will be construction of facilities to support RTA development and associated infrastructure. There will also be expanded training and operations to include combined arms, live-fire, amphibious landings, and maneuver training.
What are the affected areas?
The EIS has identified 16 “resources” that will be affected—by varying degrees—once the military exercises get underway.
These resources include geology and soil, water resources, air quality, noise, airspace, land and submerged land use, recreation, terrestrial biology, marine biology, cultural resources, visual resources, transportation, utilities, socioeconomic and environmental justice, hazardous materials and waste, and public health and safety.
Eng said the EIS designates if the military activities will have “no impact,” “less than significant impact,” or “significant impact” on the above-mentioned resources.
According to the EIS, there will be significant impacts on noise, airspace, recreation, terrestrial biology, marine biology, cultural resources, visual resources, socioeconomic and environmental justice, hazardous materials and waste, and geology and soils.
Eng said there is mitigation. The military may opt to “avoid,” “minimize” or “mitigate” depending on the impact of the activities on a certain resource.
What are the expected economic benefits?
In contrast to the environmental impacts, there are also expected benefits. These include employment, cattle grazing, commercial air traffic, volcano monitoring, biosecurity, solid waste management, and traffic improvements.
Personnel will be needed to tend the proposed military installations, thus bringing employment opportunities. Cattle can be allowed to graze on leased lands during the periods that there are no military activities.
There is a possibility that aircraft fuel will be brought to Tinian, which may allow commercial air traffic. A section of the road on Tinian is also expected to be made into a two-lane road to improve traffic.
According to Eng, all the proposed developments under the CJMT-EIS are expected to be completed in eight years.
Base camps, munitions storage, firing ranges, among others, will be built.
What do the lawmakers want?
There are a few major items that CNMI lawmakers want to be made clear by draft EIS.
Will there be repair efforts of Tinian’s breakwater infrastructure? Will the military repair the dock on Pagan? Will there be an improvement on the power grid? How about solid waste management, considering Tinian does not have sewers? Will commercial flights by Star Marianas, the lone carrier on Tinian, be affected? What about future flights, considering that there is airspace restrictions whenever military exercises are being conducted?
One important item is the leasing of Pagan, which lawmakers also want the U.S. military to consider.
In contrast to Tinian, where two-thirds of the land is already being leased by the military for 100 years, there are no talks yet on how the military plans to acquire land on Pagan.
This has been a cause for worry, since all indications point that there will be bombings and artillery fire from naval ships that will be directed to a certain portion of Pagan.
In 1981, the government ordered the few hundred residents of Pagan to leave the island due to the danger of a volcanic eruption. The question now is if these former residents are entitled their fair share, once lease negotiations begin?
Which agencies are involved in the EIS?
The draft EIS lists down the following agencies with direct involvement through a “collaborative approach.”
For the CNMI these include the Governor’s Office, the Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality, the Capital Improvements Projects Program Office, the Commonwealth Ports Authority, the Military Integration Management Committee, and the Department of Public Works.
The Tinian Mayor’s Office, the Tinian Cattlemen’s Association and other cattle ranchers, and the Northern Islands Mayor’s Office representatives are also involved.
For the federal government, agencies include the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture (Natural Resource Conservation Service), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, and the Department of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment.
Is there a need for a third-party expert?
Lawmakers also cited that the Commonwealth needs more time to review the draft environmental impact statement on proposed joint military exercises on Tinian and Pagan.
Considering that the draft EIS contains thousands of pages and involves a wide range of specialized topics, there might be a need to tap an outside expert to come in and try to “laymanize” the report.
The window for comments may not be enough, particularly for those who will be most affected by the EIS: the general public.