Benedict Dimapindan / The Cardinal Inquirer – 2005-04-28 08:23:23
(January 15, 2005) — Christine Cordero can put a face on her struggle against environmental injustice. It belonged to 6-year-old Crizel Jane Valencia, a little Filipino girl who died of acute leukemia in 2000.
Crizel and her family lived on the site of the former Clark Air Base, a US military post in the Pampanga province of the Philippines. Environmental activists claim that she, like many others, became ill as a result of exposure to the contaminants and toxic material that the US military left behind after withdrawing from the Philippines in 1991.
Cordero learned about the little girl’s story when she attended “Crizel’s World: Butterflies and Benzene,” — an art exhibit of drawings by the little girl and photos of her — in Oakland a few years ago, and has retained the image in her mind since. “It always reminds me of what I’m fighting for,” said Cordero, 24, a national board member of the Filipino/American Coalition for Environmental Solutions (FACES).
FACES, along with a group of 36 Philippine nationals and Arc Ecology, a nonprofit environmental safeguards organization, had filed a lawsuit against the US Navy and Air Force in the Federal District Court of San Jose on Dec. 2, 2002. They sought to compel the US government to take responsibility for and to conduct a preliminary site assessment of the severity of the contamination on the former Clark Air Base, and the former Subic Naval Base as well.
The court dismissed the case in 2003 on the grounds that the law in contention ˆ the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act or CERCLA — does not apply to former military installations in the Philippines. Last week, the groups appealed the decision before the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals.
Jorge Emmanuel, co-founder and former chairman of FACES, expects the appeals court to announce its decision on whether the case may proceed in about two months.
The plea before the appeals court is only the latest chapter in a long saga for these activists in their quest for environmental justice in the Philippines.
The US Military Is Expelled from the Philippines
The volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 led to the closure of Clark Air Base. Afterwards, those who had been living nearest the volcano were allowed to resettle in and around the former base.
Clark covered roughly 69,160 acres — almost the size of Singapore — and an estimated 20,000 families had temporarily resettled there between 1991 and 1999.
The following year, the Philippine Senate rejected a treaty that would have allowed continuation of US bases and the Navy left Subic Naval Base, which was roughly one-third the size of Clark. With this, nearly a century of US military presence in the country came to an end.
Only after the military was gone did the extent of the environmental damage left behind become clear. Over the past dozen years, studies by the US General Accounting Office, Arc Ecology, several other environmental firms and independent specialists have chronicled 46 sites of soil and groundwater contamination at the former bases.
The soil samples analyzed in those reports were found to contain: polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which may inhibit neurological development and increase the risk of birth defects; petroleum hydrocarbons, which may cause liver and kidney damage; and the carcinogenic agents of JP-4 jet fuel and asbestos.
A US Legacy of Polluted Soil, Water, Air
Groundwater samples reveal traces of: lead, which may lead to central nervous system damage in children; mercury, which also poisons the nervous system; benzene, which may lead to leukemia; and toluene, which may cause liver and kidney damage.
“When you walk around that place, you can feel the thickness in the air “it’s disgusting,” said Cordero, who visited Clark and Subic this past August. “To think, people lived there and drank the water from that ground. Farming families still farm and bathe in that water.”
In November 1998, the International Institute of Concern for Public Health released the findings of its survey of the Clark landscape’s adverse health effects on 13 communities at and around the former base.
The survey documented several alarming trends, including that between 24 to 31 percent of the children suffered respiratory problems; 19 percent of women reported having respiratory problems; 40.6 percent of women had central nervous system problems; and one-third of women reported reproductive system ailments.
The Philippine Senate Committee Report on Toxic Contamination in Former US Bases in the Philippines, issued in 2000, reported similar findings.
Substantial Environmental Damage
According to the report, “environmental damage caused in Subic and Clark was substantial and had serious adverse ecological, human health and economic implications for the residents within the area and for the Philippines in general.”
In fact, the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources, in the same report, called the contaminated areas “a state of environmental calamity” and recommended the relocation of any persons still residing there.
In response, FACES, Arc Ecology and community members filed a petition in 2000 on behalf of the residents living near the contaminated areas, urging the Navy and Air Force to conduct a Preliminary Assessment and Site Inspection pursuant to a stipulation found in the CERCLA law.
Emmanuel said that under CERCLA, the petition could be requested for any contaminated area that was “under the control of the US” He further said that those “bases were so under US control, Philippine officials couldn’t even go in without permission.” The American servicemen even had extra-territorial rights — if they committed a crime, they‚d be tried back in the United States, he added.
“In the law, if there’s a site potentially affecting a community, those community members can petition for a PA/SI,” Emmanuel said. “We used that provision. People were already dying — the evidence is far greater than anything in the US.”
“If they could do a PA/SI we could know how and where the places are contaminated and protect people. This has so much value because it can protect the community and stop the spread of contamination. We just need the military to be responsible.”
After the Air Force rejected the request to conduct a PA/SI, and the Navy failed to respond at all, they filed the lawsuit, which now awaits a decision from the appeals court.
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