First of a two-part series
This letter provides the comments of the Northern Islands Mayor’s Office on the Navy’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement/Overseas Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Joint Military Training Project. I submit these comments for the record on behalf of the residents of the Northern Islands, particularly the Island of Pagan.
The Northern Islands Mayor’s Office takes responsibility for promoting and protecting the health, welfare, environment and culture of the Northern Islands—consisting of Uracas (Farallon de Pajaros), Maug, Asuncion, Agrihan, Pagan, Alamagan, Guguan, Sarigan, Anatahan, and Farallon de Medinilla—and their residents, including those who have long been displaced. It will come as no surprise, then, that the Mayor’s Office absolutely and completely opposes the project.
The Navy is proposing to take the entire island of Pagan, along with surrounding near-shore waters and submerged lands, from the indigenous residents and citizens of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands for use in large-scale, live-fire combined military training exercises. Those exercises would allow massive aerial, naval, field artillery, grenade, mortar, laser, and rocket bombardment (more than 700,000 live rounds per year) of a tiny island known as one of the most pristine, fragile, biologically-diverse, and culturally-important environments in the Pacific. The project will contaminate, pollute, and obliterate the island our ancestors settled thousands of years ago. Quite simply, the CJMT will destroy our homeland.
The Navy has proposed this ill-conceived course of action on the basis of an arbitrary and capricious assessment of training needs, without providing the public an appropriate notice or description of the proposed project, without properly evaluating the project’s environmental consequences, and without considering less-damaging alternatives to the project, each of which is a clear violation of federal and CNMI law.
For the reasons set forth below, I respectfully request that you address these legal deficiencies by thoroughly revising the draft EIS—including, most importantly, the addition of a complete, unbiased evaluation of alternatives to live-fire training and bombing of Pagan—and then recirculate the document for a second round of public review and comment (see 40 C.F.R. Section 1502.9(a)).
In making this request, I wish to make it clear that the people of the Northern Islands respect and support all those who serve in the United States Navy, both in the Pacific and elsewhere. Indeed, the rate of military service among citizens of the CNMI is higher than in the 50 states. But our tradition of military service does not entitle the military to destroy our ancestral homeland. Nor does it excuse the Navy from complying with the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, or any other statute or regulation applicable here. The Navy must follow the law just as surely as the rest of us.
History, Context, and Importance of Pagan
The Draft EIS—and the Project itself—is premised on a series of inaccurate assumptions about the history, context and importance of Pagan and the current conditions of the island community.
The most fundamental of these errors is the assumption that Pagan is uninhabited. As this Office has explained to the Navy on numerous occasions, Pagan has a small permanent population as
well as somewhat larger groups of long-term visitors.
Also inaccurate are the Navy’s assumptions about visitation by, and resettlement of, those displaced as a result of the 1981 eruption of Mount Pagan. The Draft EIS assumes that the island is “largely closed to public access due to volcanic risk” (Draft EIS at 4-168). Nothing is further from the truth! There is no legal prohibition on visitation to or resettlement of Pagan. To the contrary, CNMI’s Constitution and laws (including, but not limited to CNMI Constitution Article XI, Section 5, CNMI Public Law 1-42, CNMI Public Law 16-50) lay out a legal entitlement process for obtaining homesteads on Pagan.1 The things currently limiting resettlement are the high costs of transportation and infrastructure, the limited budgets of the government agencies charged with addressing those concerns, and the uncertainty caused by the Navy’s proposal to take Pagan for itself Those who were displaced by the eruption, their descendants, and other residents retain their desire and their legal right to return.
Perhaps seeking to downplay the impacts of the project, the Draft EIS also suggests that long-term settlement on Pagan is not a sustainable proposition. The Navy’s position seems to be that
Pagan is only suitable for military training, and its destruction should therefore be accepted as inevitable. This view ignores both the legal rights of Pagan’s residents (and their descendants) and the fact that Pagan has been home to peaceful civilian settlements dating back to the 1300s. It also ignores a variety of land use and economic development plans that demonstrate the ways in which environmentally- and economically-sustainable communities can flourish on Pagan, including but not limited to the 1970 Land Use Proposal for Pagan Island, the 1978 Physical Development Master Plan, the 2012-2016 CNMI Tourism Master Plan, the Northern Marianas College Agricultural Master Plan, and other project-specific planning documents. Again, the primary constraints are budget and infrastructure—issues that the uncertainty caused by the CJMT have exacerbated.
Finally, I note that the Navy’s reasoning is undermined by its own project. The Navy’s position appears to be that (i) Pagan cannot be re-settled because it lacks infrastructure and (ii) because the island cannot be re-settled, it is an appropriate place for military bombardment. In a rather twisted irony, the project has now confirmed that infrastructure improvements capable of rendering Pagan sustainable for productive civilian use—clearing the existing airfield and constructing a new dock and breakwater—are perfectly feasible given appropriate budgetary resources.2 And, in confirming that fact, the Navy has effectively demonstrated that Pagan is not an appropriate place for the live-fire activities contemplated by the CJMT.
The Navy’s erroneous assumption that Pagan is and will remain uninhabited renders the entire Draft EIS inadequate. But it is especially relevant to the Navy’s analyses of land use, noise, recreation, cultural resources, visual resources, and socioeconomics. Each of those sections must be thoroughly revised to account for the current population and future re-settlement of Pagan and the Northern Islands.
Purpose and Need/Alternatives
An EIS is required to address all reasonable alternatives that can accomplish the purpose and need for a proposed action. But the Draft EIS prepared for the project does not consider any alternative to military training on Pagan.
The Navy has tried to explain away this failure by suggesting that (i) the Mariana Islands region has more unmet training requirements than other Pacific Command areas of responsibility and (ii) within the Marianas, Pagan is the only island large enough to accommodate the Navy’s combined-level training (Draft EIS at 2-149). Those explanations ring hollow for a number of reasons:
The Draft EIS claims that the Navy only looked at locations within the CNMI because the Marianas have more unmet training needs than other regions. But every single one of the training scenarios identified in the Draft EIS involves trainees from outside the Marianas region (see Draft EIS at 2-19 to 2-20). If it is feasible to bring personnel from outside the Marianas to train on Pagan, it should be just as feasible to transport personnel from the Marianas to train elsewhere. The Navy should have evaluated that option.
The Draft EIS claims that the Project is needed in order to address training deficiencies among PACOM personnel. But it appears that many of the trainees who would train on Pagan are not PACOM personnel at all. In fact, a significant number will be foreign forces (see Draft EIS at 2-18 to 2-20).
The Draft EIS claims that the two “alternatives” presented in the document are the only options that will fit within the Navy’s purpose and need for action. Even if that were true, it would not excuse the Navy from broadening its analysis. A statement of purpose and need cannot be drafted so narrowly that only one option will satisfy it.
In an effort to get around that rule, the Draft EIS purports to evaluate two “alternatives” for training on Pagan. But there is no meaningful difference between them. The Draft EIS essentially admits as much (see, e.g., Draft EIS at 2-129 (“there would be no perceptible difference for munitions expended between the alternatives”) and Table 4.20-2 (environmental impacts identical)). The alternatives do not provide a meaningful choice.
The Mayor’s Office understands that the Navy currently conducts a variety of training activities at sites in Japan, Korea, Australia, Hawaii, and the Philippines. These are clearly reasonable locations for combined training (if they weren’t, the Navy wouldn’t use them) and they should have been evaluated in the Draft EIS as real alternatives to training on Pagan.
• It would have made sense to consider using or adding to existing training facilities rather than creating a new one. As noted above, the Draft EIS shows that the overwhelming majority of the troops projected to train on Pagan are either U.S. personnel from outside the CNMI or foreign forces. That fact suggests the U.S. forces within the Marianas do not require as much training capacity as Pagan would provide. It would seem far more efficient—and certainly environmentally-preferable—to simply expand an existing training facility elsewhere.
The fundamental purposes of an EIS are to ensure that federal agencies consider all relevant environmental concerns and to provide the public with an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. Neither one of those things is possible without a clear, detailed project description. Unfortunately, the project description in the Draft EIS is not sufficiently clear or detailed to allow the public—or the Navy, for that matter—to understand the potential impacts of the project. A number of significant questions remain:
For how many years does the Navy propose to train on Pagan? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? Indefinitely? The Draft EIS provides no answer. Without knowing how long the project will last, there is no way to be sure that long-term impacts are fully addressed.
The Navy’s Notice of Intent to prepare the Draft EIS states that Pagan “will be available to U.S. forces and their allies on a continuous and uninterrupted schedule” and that the training ranges on the island would operate continuously. The Draft EIS seems to suggest (but does not guarantee) that training would not be continuous and must conform to a schedule determined six months in advance. Which one is accurate?
The Covenant that established the CNMI and governs its relationship with the United States explicitly affirms that the United States does not anticipate the need for military use of Pagan. The Covenant also promises that “the United States will continue to recognize and respect the scarcity and special importance of land in the Northern Mariana Islands” by refraining from taking any land against the will of the people of the CNMI unless (i) absolutely necessary and (ii) Congress approves. The project proposes to take the entire island of Pagan against the will of the people of the Northern Islands. How can this be consistent with the Covenant?
The Draft EIS seems to suggest that combined level training activities will involve a maximum of 2,200 personnel. But the Draft EIS also says that bivouac and wastewater infrastructure will be designed for 4,000 troops. One portion of the Draft EIS seeks to explain this discrepancy with a vague reference to “surge capacity” (Draft EIS at 2-115). But another portion of the document suggests the 4,000-person capacity would be for “joint exercises.” Which is it? Will training on Pagan be limited to 2,200 personnel at a time? Or will it involve up to 4,000? And which training levels were evaluated in each of the environmental impact analyses presented in Chapter 4 of the Draft EIS (and related technical appendices)?
The Draft EIS is suspiciously vague on the subject of the Navy’s “unconstrained training concept.” The majority of the Draft EIS suggests that live-fire training on Pagan will be limited to 16 weeks per year (Draft EIS at 2-18) and that this would be sufficient to address all unmet training needs (Draft EIS at 2-2). But portions of the document also refer to an “unconstrained training concept” involving 40 weeks of training per year. Given that (i) the notion of an “unconstrained concept” has no basis in NEPA, (ii) much of the training capacity on Pagan will be used by non-PACOM and/or foreign forces, and (iii) Pagan facilities like the bivouac area appear to be significantly over-designed, it appears that the Navy’s “unconstrained training concept” is an attempt to confuse the public—a way to hide the Navy’s true intention to develop a much larger project on Pagan. If the unconstrained training concept is reasonably foreseeable, it must be fully evaluated in this EIS (see 40 C.F.R. §§ 1508.7, 1508.8). On the other hand, if the unconstrained training concept is not proposed to be implemented on Pagan, the Navy should confirm that fact in writing and the concept should be removed from the EIS.
The Draft EIS also lacks sufficient detail regarding the Navy’s proposal to build a dock and a breakwater on Pagan. The Draft EIS says the dock and breakwater are “anticipated to be needed and would be implemented in the future” (Draft EIS at 2-3), but it does not provide a detailed analysis of those aspects of the project. As noted above, the Mayor’s Office does not necessarily oppose the concept of a dock and breakwater; we have needed transportation infrastructure for civilian purposes for quite some time. To be clear, however, the Mayor’s Office does oppose the Navy’s failure to consider alternatives to siting the military training component of the project on Pagan. Moreover, if it is reasonably foreseeable that the Navy is going to build a dock and breakwater, whether now or in the future (and, given the scope of the project, it is impossible to believe the Navy could handle the logistics of training without doing so), the location, design, and environmental consequences of that infrastructure must be thoroughly evaluated in this EIS. The Navy’s crude, “programmatic” analysis is not sufficient.
Several key aspects of the project are not explained in the project description section of the Draft EIS. How will waste (human, solid, hazardous, spent munitions, etc.) be removed from Pagan? The Navy proposes to deliver trainees to Pagan via amphibious craft; how many landings will be required to bring each group of trainees to Pagan and where will those landings take place? The Draft EIS says that the project will involve live-fire landing zones at locations specified in Figure 2.5-2 (Draft EIS at 2-121), but Figure 2.5-2 does not appear to contain the referenced information; where will the landing zones be located?
These unanswered questions make it impossible to properly identify and evaluate the environmental consequences of the Navy’s proposal. They also frustrate public participation in the NEPA process. The Draft EIS must be revised and recirculated for another round of review and comment (40 C.F.R. § 1502.9).
To be continued.
1 The Mayor’ s Office will take the lead in assisting with these claims while encouraging private action on additional claims or entitlements.
2 Pagan has sufficient natural resources to meet its own needs as well as those of the rest of the Gani Islands. Indeed, Pagan’s population has at rimes reached 8,000. During World War II, the Japanese successfully built water wells, a power system, and a sustainable agriculture and fishing industry on Pagan, though they never used the island for live firing or bombing.
(Jerome Kaipat Aldan, Special to the Saipan Tribune)
Editor’s Note: Due to its length, the following article is being published in two parts. The second part will be published tomorrow.