Today, Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the U.S. Air Force’s failure to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) for its plan to burn and detonate about 35,000 pounds of bombs and other hazardous waste munitions each year in the open air on Tarague Beach in northern Guam, less than 200 feet from the Pacific Ocean. Prutehi Litekyan says the Air Force violated NEPA when it applied for a Hazardous Waste Management Facility Permit for open burning and open detonating (“OB/OD”) of munitions at Andersen Air Force Base without first considering the potentially significant cultural and environmental impacts from OB/OD or alternate means to dispose of munitions that have fewer environmental impacts.
The proposed open burning operations at Tarague Beach would involve putting hazardous waste munitions in a large metal container that is open to the air, pouring diesel on top, and then lighting the munitions on fire. Open detonation operations would consist of blowing up bombs, rockets, and other hazardous waste munitions directly on the bare sand. OB/OD of munitions releases both toxic chemicals — such as RDX, HMX, TNT, perchlorate, and dioxins/furans — and unexploded ordnance directly to the surrounding land, air, and ocean.
The Air Force plans to conduct OB/OD operations on ancestral lands that the military seized after WWII from CHamoru families, who hope to see the return of these lands in the future. The proposed OB/OD operations could permanently contaminate the area with unexploded ordnance and toxic chemicals, effectively precluding the return of these lands to the families that originally owned them.
“The military seized my great grandfather’s copra and pig farm, which was right next to where the Air Force wants to blow up bombs, rockets, and other hazardous waste munitions,” said Monaeka Flores of Prutehi Litekyan. “My family dreams of the return of our ancestral lands, and we want to put our land back to culturally appropriate, productive use. But we can’t do that if the Air Force is allowed to contaminate the land and water with their toxic waste.”
OB/OD of hazardous waste munitions began at Andersen Air Force Base in 1982, but no open burning has occurred in the past two decades. The Air Force has never conducted the legally required environmental review for OB/OD operations, despite the potentially significant harm to the surrounding environment. The OB/OD site is sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean (which lies about 180 feet away) and the jungle (80 feet away), and it sits above a shallow unconfined aquifer.
OB/OD operations could contaminate the aquifer, which supplies drinking water to more than 80% of Guam’s population. Contaminants also could enter the ocean, harming local families that frequent nearby beaches and culturally significant fishing sites. The explosions from open detonation on the bare sand of Tarague Beach threaten harm to endangered green sea turtles, which nest there, and migratory seabirds that frequent the beach.
“OB/OD operations will harm cultural and natural resources that are critically important to local families,” said Maria Hernandez of Prutehi Litekyan. “We depend on our traditional fishing sites to harvest food, we need a clean aquifer for drinking water, we cultivate and harvest traditional medicines nearby. Families spend time on the beaches and in the ocean near where the Air Force wants to detonate bombs. I don’t want the Air Force to poison the ocean my children swim in, the water we drink, and the sacred land we all depend on.”
“The whole point of the National Environmental Policy Act is to force federal agencies like the Air Force to consider the harm their proposed projects would inflict and to look at better ways to get the job done before they make a decision to proceed,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, who represents Prutehi Litekyan in the litigation. “The Air Force’s violations are particularly egregious here, where the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently issued a study that identified much safer ways to dispose of munitions than blowing them up and burning them in the open air. The Air Force had a legal duty to consider using those safer technologies before seeking to continue OB/OD at Andersen Air Force Base, which threatens serious cultural and environmental harm.”
In 2019, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a report on “Alternatives for the Demilitarization of Conventional Munitions” that concluded that “[v]iable alternative technologies exist within the demilitarization enterprise” for all the munitions that the Air Force seeks to treat with OB/OD at Andersen AFB. The study further concluded that, as compared to OB/OD, the alternative technologies would all have “lower emissions and less of an environmental and public health impact.”