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Tuesday, May 9, 2000

Wake, not Johnston,
will store military’s tons
of toxic waste

By Christine Donnelly


While pleased that 110 tons of toxic military waste won't go to the national wildlife refuge of Johnston Island, environmentalists are unhappy the cargo rejected by two ports will be stored on Wake Island, at least temporarily.

"It's all one big ocean and if that stuff gets into the ocean, it's bad news," said David Henkin, an attorney for the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Honolulu. "Sure, Wake is farther from Hawaii, but that just means it's closer to somewhere else. While we're certainly happy that they're not going to Johnston, I'm not sure things will be any better off if they go to Wake."

The waste, which contains low levels of cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, is to leave Japan by May 18 for Wake Island, where it will stay "until final disposition is determined," said Gerda Parr, spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Although the ultimate site has yet to be decided, Johnston Island is no longer being considered, she said.

Parr said she did not know exactly where or for how long the waste from U.S. military bases in Japan would stay on Wake Island, which is about 2,000 miles west of Hawaii. Civilian contractors there referred all questions back to the military.

The U.S. Army, which runs a missile launch support facility there, will do an environmental impact analysis as required by law, Parr said.

Johnston Island, part of a national wildlife refuge, is about 825 miles southwest of Hawaii. The island also houses an Army facility that destroys chemical weapons, but that facility is to close next year.

Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had objected to storing the waste there, citing the possibility that a hurricane could blow it into the ocean. Officials from that agency did not return phone calls yesterday, but Henkin said the same risks would be true for Wake Island, which although not an official refuge, is home to fragile coral reefs and sea birds, not to mention about 100 contract workers.

Parr said the material was safely "overpacked" in heavy containers-within-containers. The waste includes transformers, transformer oil, circuit breakers and small parts, some of which were found to contain less than 50 parts per million PCBs, Parr said. By law, PCBs cannot be imported into the customs territory of the United States for disposal; Wake Island is outside that territory. There are no suitable disposal sites in Japan, she said.

The U.S. government says the law does not cover the storage (as opposed to disposal) of properly packaged waste with such low levels of PCBs. But ports in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Seattle rejected the cargo.

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