Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: The question of who will clean up military pollution is not unique to Panama; it has been an issue with almost every base in the U.S. as well. For background, see "SF Bay Enviro Groups Threaten Navy Suit" and "Treasure Island is 'Oil-Soaked Sponge,' Suit Claims" in previous issues of the Monitor.]

Panama Asks: Who Will Pay For Military Cleanup?

by Silvio Hernandez

(IPS) PANAMA CITY -- The United States has not yet made it clear whether it plans to clean up some 9,000 hectares of land used in "war games" at the military bases it is to hand over to Panama at the turn of the century.

The network of shooting ranges and training grounds used by the U.S. army to train its troops to operate in a tropical setting is strewn with mines and other explosives. And according to local biologists, an entire range of hazardous chemical products is stored in the bases.

Army spokesman said it would be practically impossible to clean up the area in the three years prior to the hand-over deadline
Although the 1977 Panama Canal treaties stipulate that the United States is to clean up the territory to be returned to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999, the U.S. Congress enacted a law in February 1995 that frees the country from responsibility for the clean-up of its bases and military training grounds abroad, although it does not specifically refer to the areas covered by the Canal treaties.

A U.S. army spokesman recently said that designating as forest reserves the 9,000 hectares of land currently covered by the military training grounds would be the most convenient option for both countries.

Rogelio Preciado, an environmental engineer who works for the Southern Command of the U.S. army located on the banks of the Canal, said it would be practically impossible to clean up the area in the three years prior to the hand-over deadline.

Besides the high cost of such an enormous task, the removal of the layer of earth necessary for the elimination of the explosives "would cause damage to the natural jungle reserve," Preciado contended.

"The only way to protect the population from pollution and accidental explosions is to fence the area off and designate it as a forest reserve," he added.

But Carlos Lopez Guevara, a former Panamanian negotiator of the Canal treaties, stressed that the U.S. obligation "has no time limit and does not end when the bases are handed over...The treaties clearly state the U.S. obligation to hand back the Canal area and the military bases free of any danger to human life.

"That is the right of all Panamanians, and it is the government's responsibility to demand strict compliance," he added.

According to studies carried out in the United States, cleaning up toxic waste on military bases being closed in U.S. territory will cost some $100 million per installation. In Panama, the United States is to clean up four shooting ranges and five large military bases.

Carlos Arellano Lennox, a Panamanian biologist and former opposition deputy, said there is an entire range of chemical products, including phosphorus compounds and defoliants similar to those used in the Vietnam war, stored at the U.S. military bases, posing an even greater risk than the mines.

Such products, among which figure pentaclorophenol and others "which damage vision and produce cancer and infertility" in human beings, are part of the waste that the United States plans to leave behind when it pulls out of Panama, said Arellano Lennox.

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Albion Monitor March 30, 1997 (

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