In 1968, Leroy Foster was a principal sergeant in the US Air Force, assigned to Anderson Air Force Base at Thrush, an island region of the United States in the Pacific. The day after he arrived on the island, he recalls being ordered to mix “diesel fuel with Agent Orange”, then spraying “by truck all over the base to kill any overgrowth in the forest”.
Before long, Foster developed serious skin complaints and eventually fell ill with Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease. Later, her daughter developed cancer as a teenager, and her grandson was born with 12 fingers, 12 toes, and a heart whisper. Foster died in 2018.
A new book, Poisoning the Pacific, due for release Monday, tells of decades of US military contamination of indigenous lands in the Pacific as well as the oceans themselves, endangering lives and ecosystems across the vast Pacific Ocean.
Written by British journalist Jon Mitchell, Poisoning the Pacific is based on more than 12,000 pages of documents obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and through interviews with local residents, military veterans and researchers.
The book argues that for decades, the US has been treating it territory in the Pacific with neglect, allowing its military to violate customary rights, seize land, and destroy fragile ecosystems.
Alongside Foster’s case – after years of campaigning the aviator is finally compensated for his exposure on the island – Mitchell’s book details decades of US military operations that polluted the Pacific with toxic substances including radioactive waste, nerve agents, and dioxin-tainted Agent Orange. .
“US authorities have repeatedly tried to cover up the contamination through lies, disinformation and attacks on journalists,” Mitchell told The Guardian. “I have experienced this pressure firsthand.”
Mitchell’s books document several attempts by the US state and defense department to block his work. One FOIA file shows that Mitchell is being watched by the US Marine Corps’ Criminal Investigation Division. The documents include his photo, his biography, and a lecture he gave in Okinawa on military contamination.
“Colleagues warned me not to continue with my investigations. What particularly motivates me to continue filing for FOIA and extracting evidence is the very real impact my research has had on veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Okinawa, ”he said.
“My report has helped these sick men and women receive compensation from the US government. Investigative journalism is ultimately a job that is supposed to help people who have experienced persecution receive the justice they deserve. “
Poisoning the Pacific details the ongoing environmental damage and risks to human health.
The ‘dome’ on the island of Runit in the Marshall Islands – a compact sovereign nation in free relations with the US – is a large concrete grave where the US has stored more than 70,000 m3 radioactive debris, including plutonium-239, left over from US post-war atomic tests. Irradiated land from Nevada was also transported to the island and dumped.
The dome leaks radioactive material into the sea, USA energy department admitted, although it was said the numbers were not dangerous. Successive US governments have said the dome is the responsibility of the Marshall Islands, saying the US has paid more than $ 600 million in radiation-related resettlement, rehabilitation and health care costs to affected communities.
The book documents “the US Army dumped 29 million kilograms of mustard agents and neuroprotective agents, and 454 tonnes of radioactive waste” into the Pacific Ocean, as well as the US military’s use of neuroprotective agents, including sarin, which US government documents confirmation leaked to the neighborhood while scheduled for destruction at Johnston Atoll near Hawaii.
The debate over the use of a potentially lethal herbicide has been hotly debated.
After the second world war, some five thousand barrels of Agent Purple – the herbicide pioneer Agent Orange – were transported and stored on Guam.
Although the US defense department consistently claims herbicide stockpiles are never used on the island, service members stationed there at the time claim they sprayed and dumped military waste, including damaged herbicide barrels, on the cliffs of Guam.
Researchers, including Guam’s department of public health and social services, reported in 2015 that villages where the herbicide is believed to have been sprayed experienced a higher incidence of infant mortality from birth defects.
In 2017, investigating claims of herbicide use on Guam, the US government itself came into conflict: the the defense department reported that the soil test contained no herbicides, the environmental protection agency reported otherwise.
The health and environmental impacts on Guam reflect what has happened to local residents and US soldiers based in Okinawa, Japan, where the US has maintained a base for decades, and where Mitchell began reporting.
In 2005, the US struck a deal with Japan to transfer thousands of US marines from Okinawa to Guam. Okinawans consistently oppose the US military presence on the island citing harm to their health and environment.
There has been some progress, although limited. Guam senators have backed a bill to include the territory on the list of veterans’ places where Agent Orange is used. In March 2019, a bill that was named after Lonnie Kilpatrick, a service member who fell ill on Guam and died, agreed to compensation for 52,000 veterans who were exposed to herbicides in three US Pacific regions – Guam, American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll.
But even in 2020, the voices of indigenous peoples are consistently muted, Mitchell said. In July, the time when military excavations on Guam were revealed dozens of sites containing human remains and cultural artifacts, local residents – especially the indigenous Chamorro – were shocked. But despite concerns fueling a growing movement to demilitarize the Pacific, the US’s newest marine corps base – the first new base in nearly 70 years – officially opened the door earlier this month.
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