Payback time

Fellows Fall 1999

By Colin Woodard

June 08, 2009

MARSHALL ISLANDS, Fall 1999 -- I'm in a high-rise office in central Honolulu and attorney Davor Pevec is showing me photos of the damage to his clients' property. There's quite a stack of them, aerial shots mostly, and Pevec is slowly laying them out on the boardroom table as if he were dealing solitaire.

We're looking at a tropical atoll - a necklace of tiny coral islands surrounding a wide lagoon. It's called Enewetak and in the 1950s the United States detonated 43 nuclear weapons here, perforating the reef with gigantic blast craters, vaporizing entire islands, and spreading radioactive debris across the atoll. One picture shows the mile-wide crater left in the reef by the world¹s first hydrogen blast. The crater overlaps with a slightly smaller one left by another thermonuclear test. Nearby Boken Island has a crater carved from its middle - only the edges of the island are intact.

A photo of Runit Island is dominated by three giant blast craters. One has been filled with radioactive debris and capped with a concrete dome. Many of the other islands are covered in scraggly vegetation and stunted trees; most of Enewetak's topsoil was bulldozed to make way for test sites and buildings, or later to reduce radiation levels. Close-ups show stunted coconut trees and rocky, desert-like fields.

This is where Pevec's clients now live, dependent on U.S. Department of Agriculture food shipments. They can't visit the northern half of the atoll because of the high levels of radioactivity there. Since 1979, most of the 1,000-or-so people of Enewetak have returned, ending a 33-year exile marked by malnutrition and hardship. A $105 million U.S. cleanup reduced radiation levels in the southern part of the atoll, but left the islands with little or no topsoil to support agriculture.

"The Enewetak people endured great hardships and sufferings because the United States forgot about its commitment to take care of them," Pevec says. "What we're seeking is the full compensation to which they are entitled."

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The Cold War may be over, but its legacy lives on in the Marshall Islands. To win the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, the United States conducted 67 nuclear and thermonuclear tests in these Central Pacific islands in the 1940s and 1950s. For decades, the atomic test victims have fought to secure full compensation for the loss of their homes, health, and loved ones, and for the funds to make their home islands habitable again.

This year, Congress is likely to be asked to compensate them. A series of legal motions now working their way through a special Marshallese court are expected to lead to a final appeal to legislators in Washington for the hundreds of millions of dollars the islanders say is required to clean up their atolls to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. Hundreds of millions more will likely be requested for hardship and suffering, infrastructure improvements, and loss of land use.

"The American public should think of this as part of the cost and legacy of the Cold War," says Jonathan Weisgall, the Washington attorney who represents the people of Bikini. "The tests helped the United States win the Cold War with the Russians, but now it needs to clean up after itself so that these people can go back home."

The claims involve the people of four atolls, including those from the two test sites, Bikini and Enewetak, which were heavily irradiated, who have spent decades in bleak exile. The Bikinians have yet to return home. Also still homeless are the residents of Rongelap, 150 miles east of Bikini, who were exposed to highly radioactive fallout from a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb test in 1959. A fourth atoll, Utrik, was also evacuated during the tests, though its people resettled years later.

Deciding how much money to ask for has been a difficult, time-consuming process, particularly when it comes to determining how much cleanup is enough to allow for resettlement of the islands. The main question is: How clean is clean enough?

Until a little over a year ago, the Marshallese thought they had the answer. A pile of scientific studies sponsored by everyone from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the Republic of the Marshall Islands indicated that "safe" meant an average dose of 100 millirems a year - with a few caveats, like "don't eat very many locally grown coconuts or the crabs that feed on them." But with regular monitoring, scientists said, the islanders' safety would be ensured.

When I visited the Marshall Islands in mid-1998, Bikinians and Rongelapese were debating whether or not to trust the scientists and make preparations to return home. The communities were split on the issue, with those who had been part of the abortive resettlements of the past hesitant to trust the scientists.

"For me, I'd read these reports over and over again, and I was more or less comfortable with the 100 millirem level," says Jack Niedenthal, the Bikinian's American-born Trust Liaison who has a Bikinian wife and children. "It did bother me that it always sounded like an experiment. I mean, how safe can you feel when every month or so you have to tell your eight-year-old daughter that it¹s time to go get into the whole body [radiation] counter?"

"Suddenly it's no longer a scientific issue, but a political one," Niedenthal says. "If that's the standard in the United States than it has to be the standard here. Fifteen millirems is so low it's almost like going back to 1946. That¹s been our goal all along." Sources in Washington say that while nobody contests that U.S. standards should be applied to the cleanup of the islands, the figures involved in such a thorough cleanup may make some congressmen balk. Pevec's case, now pending before a special Marshallese court, calls for $115 million just to clean up the northern half of Enewetak atoll. He¹s also asking for approximately $310 million to remediate soil, improve infrastructure, and compensate landowners on Enewetak's southern islets.

Bikini had already received $90 million from the United States for cleanup and resettlement, but the new standards will require as much as $250 million more, according to Weisgall. The Bikinians' case, also pending before the Marshallese Nuclear Claims Tribunal, asks for several hundred million in additional compensation for hardship and the loss of the use of the atoll. Similar claims from Rongelap and Utrik are expected to follow later this year. When the Nuclear Claims Tribunal makes its rulings, these property damage awards could easily run over a billion dollars.

The problem is, the tribunal doesn't have the money to pay those claims. Set up under the Marshall Islands' 1986 independence treaty with the United States, the tribunal was designed to handle personal injury and property claims arising from the atomic testing program. Under the agreement, the United States funded the tribunal to the tune of $45.7 million, a figure then thought sufficient to cover all claims. Using criteria patterned after U.S. "downwinder" laws, the tribunal has already made personal injury awards of $69.7 million, according to Public Advocate Bill Graham.

"It's clear now that the patient is hemorrhaging," Graham told me at his office in Majuro, the Marshallese capital. "The tribunal cannot make even a two-thirds payment on the personal injury awards to date. How is it going to make any award on the property damage cases?" The Marshallese government, Graham says, needs to get the U.S. Congress to allocate more funds so the awards can be paid.

Nor are these four big class action property suits the last items on the tribunal's agenda. Personal injury cases continue to pour in from all across the Marshall Islands. Other atolls - particularly Ailuk in the northern Marshalls - may not meet the new 15 millirem standard, requiring further cleanup funds (though certainly orders of magnitude less than the amount for Bikini and Enewetak).

Whatever the final awards, Congress will soon be asked to allocate more money. But the amounts involved may cause some consternation on Capitol Hill. "Congress is generally sympathetic, but there may be some serious sticker shock when they see the numbers," says one Washington official. Officials in the Marshall Islands make comparisons to the U.S. cleanup effort at the contaminated nuclear site in Hanford, Washington. "Congress has spent $12 billion at Hanford without even putting a shovel in the ground," Weisgall says. "They ought to be over sticker shock by now."