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Panama Left with an Explosive Issue.

In December 1999, when the United States officially turned the Panama Canal over to the Republic of Panama, the historic transfer was praised as the beginning of a new bilateral relationship between the two countries. But since 1997, environmental and activist groups in both nations have claimed that the United States has an unfulfilled obligation to clean up the unexploded shells, grenades, and other munitions left behind by departing U.S. armed forces after decades of military training in the country.

"The United States has made little effort to clean up the explosives in Panama, and that has left a large amount of land too dangerous for human habitation and development," says John Lindsay-Poland, director of Latin American programs at the San Francisco, California-based Fellowship of Reconciliation, a nonprofit group that has monitored the environmental situation in Panama since 1993. A 1999 U.S. Department of Defense press release reported that some 3,171 hectares of land--approximately 2% of the overall land to be returned (and, Lindsay-Poland says, 8% of former military lands)--was not cleared of unexploded ordnance. Estimates of the amount of undetected ordnance lying on the ground or buried under the jungle canopy have ranged to as high as 110,000 or more pieces.

The Department of Defense takes the position that the United States has complied fully with its obligation to clean up unexploded ordnance under the Panama Canal Treaty. Says one department official, "The treaty required the U.S. government to `remove insofar as may be practicable all hazards to human health, life, and the environment.' To achieve that standard in a technically challenging tropical environment, the U.S. government conducted numerous on-the-ground studies and employed a practicality matrix to assist in making judgments concerning the most probable locations of unexploded ordnance that could be safely located and removed." The official says further that a joint inspection by U.S. and Panamanian representatives revealed no unexploded ordnance that could feasibly be removed. "Due to dense vegetation, limits of technology, and the need to preserve the environment and to ensure the safety of explosive ordnance disposal personnel, access to and removal of unexploded ordnance was not practicable in certain areas of the former ranges," says the official.

Critics, however, do not believe the U.S. government removed all the munitions and related waste it could or conducted adequate environmental testing. According to Lindsay Poland, scientific studies conducted or commissioned by the Department of Defense have not followed the standards used for environmental baseline studies and other evaluations at closing domestic military bases.

Scott A. Muller, an environmental engineer working in Panama, says the Range Closure Plan of the U.S. Army South (which provides support to the military throughout Central and South America) mandates the completion of a human health risk evaluation, including a study of environmental media that may have been affected by contamination such as lead leaching from spent bullets left on firing ranges. Says Muller, "According to information released, no groundwater studies were done by the Department of Defense in any of the human health risk evaluations from Pina, Empire, or Balboa West firing ranges. No groundwater sampling has been conducted by the department for any munitions ranges, nor bases, except the Arraijan tank farm and Rodman Naval Station. Despite its importance, [sampling] has been repeatedly neglected due to `limited hydrogeologic information.'"

In the days surrounding the Panama Canal transfer last December, the Panamanian government was critical of the U.S. position on the ordnance issue. Panamanian president Mireya Moscoso was quoted in the 4 January 2000 issue of the Inter-Press Service Environment Bulletin as saying that U.S. troops had cleaned up "practically nothing" before leaving Panama. Since then, the Moscoso government has also stated that it does not want financial compensation in lieu of cleanup and that it is willing to work with the United States to clean up the ranges.

After months of talks, on 19 September 2000, the Panamanian government, represented by ambassador Ramon Morales Quijano, brought its case before the United Nations, asking for the international agency's assistance in resolving the matter. What was once a "quiet" controversy may now become an international issue.
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Author:Chepesiuk, Ron
Publication:Environmental Health Perspectives
Date:Nov 1, 2000
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