Decades later, U.S. military pollution in Philippines linked to deaths

Nov. 7, 2009 These members of the Fastulan village tribe worked as subcontractors for the U.S. Navy sorting waste such as paints, chemicals and asbestos materials by hand until 1991. Villagers, who do not keep birth or death records, made a list of 42 former workers who they believed died of complications from exsposure to military toxic waste, some dating back to the 1970s.


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 2, 2010

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CLARK AIR BASE, Philippines - The U. S. military is long gone from bases in the Philippines, but its legacy remains buried here.

Toxic waste was spilled on the ground, pumped into waterways and buried in landfills for decades at two sprawling Cold War-era bases.

Today, ice cream shops, Western-style horse ranches, hotels and public parks have sprung up on land once used by the Air Force and the Navy — a benign facade built on land the Philippine government said is still polluted with asbestos, heavy metals and fuel.

Records of about 500 families who sought refuge on the deserted bases after a 1991 volcanic eruption indicate 76 people died and 68 others were sickened by pollutants on the bases. A study in 2000 for the Philippine Senate also linked the toxins to "unusually high occurrence of skin disease, miscarriages, still births, birth defects, cancers, heart ailments and leukemia."

The 1991 base closing agreement gave the Philippines billions of dollars in military infrastructure and real estate at the bases and in return cleared the United States of any responsibility for the pollution. The Department of Defense told Stars and Stripes it has no authority to undertake or pay for environmental cleanup at the closed bases.

Philippine government efforts never gained traction. Philippine President Joseph Estrada formed a task force in 2000 to take on the issue, but it fell dormant and unfunded after he left office a year later. Efforts by private groups and environmentalists to force a cleanup have largely fizzled.

After two decades, the base closing agreement has run up a troubling environmental record. Filipinos claim exposure to U.S. pollutants has brought suffering and death.

As the U.S. military works to become greener in the 21st century, the Philippines stand as a dark reminder of how environmental responsibilities can go astray overseas.

Both the Air Force and the Navy polluted haphazardly in the Philippines.

The Navy pumped 3.75 million gallons of untreated sewage each day into local fishing and swimming waters at Subic Bay, according to a 1992 report by what was then known as the General Accounting Office.

The bases poured fuel and chemicals from firefighting exercises directly into the water table and used underground storage tanks without leak detection equipment, the agency found.

At least three sites at the Subic Bay Navy base — two landfills and an ordnance disposal area — are dangerously polluted with materials such as asbestos, metals and fuels, the Philippines government found after an environmental survey there.

Clark Air Base was a staging area during the Vietnam War. Its aviation and vehicle operations contaminated eight sites with oil, petroleum lubricants, pesticides, PCB and lead, according to a 1997 environmental survey by the Philippine government.

Before the U.S. closed the bases, it drew up a rough bill for cleaning the hazardous pollution.

Though they never tested the water or soil, the Air Force and the Navy estimated cleanup at each could cost up to $25 million — the average cost of handling the most polluted sites back in the United States, according to the GAO.

Rose Ann Calma is believed to be one of the warning signs of pollution at Clark Air Base.

Now 13 years old, she weighs just 32 pounds and must wear diapers. Cerebral palsy and severe mental retardation have stolen her ability to speak or walk.

Her mother and about 500 other families who were displaced by a volcanic eruption in 1991 moved onto the base and set up a tent village.

They drilled shallow wells on a former motor pool site and drank the untreated water — despite an oily sheen — until they were moved off the land in the late 1990s.

Records of the families, published by the Philippines Senate, said 144 people were sickened at the camp, 76 of whom died.

It said at least 19 children were born with disabilities, diseases and deformities between 1996 and 1999.

Tests in 1995 by the Philippine Department of Health confirmed wells on Clark were contaminated with oil and grease, a byproduct of decades of military use.

"If it is God’s will, then I accept it," Rose Ann’s mother, Susan Calma, said recently.

In a village near Subic Bay, Norma Abraham, 58, holds an X-ray showing the lung disease that killed her husband, Guillermo.

Her husband worked through the 1980s and early 1990s sorting the Navy waste that went into local landfills, which are the most polluted sites at Subic Bay.

Many aborigines like Abraham, who are among the poorest in a poor country, were paid about 30 cents per day to hand-sort recyclable metals from Navy waste that included asbestos, paint and batteries, villagers told Stars and Stripes.

No protective equipment other than gloves was ever used, and asbestos dust was often thick in the air, the villagers said. Sometimes, when a truck dumped new waste for sorting, they said the workers would faint from the toxic fumes.

Guillermo Abraham began to cough, feel tightness in his lungs and have trouble breathing while working there, his wife said.

The lung ailment plagued him through his life and after an X-ray in January showed he was terminally ill with lung disease, he died on May 29, Norma Abraham said.

His disease, which mirrors asbestosis, is the most common ailment and killer among the 70 or so families who worked with the Navy’s waste, according to the villagers.

The aborigines rarely get quality medical treatment and do not keep birth or death records. But they compiled a list for Stars and Stripes of 41 people who they believe died over the years from toxic exposure.

Any real chance for an environmental cleanup was scuttled by the two governments in the agreement that gave the Philippines billions of dollars in base infrastructure and real estate in return for absolving the United States of any responsibility for the pollution.

As a result, the United States has no legal responsibility or authority to conduct a cleanup, and an influential Philippines politician said that government has little interest in the problem.

"It is not one of its priorities," said Philippine Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., a former majority leader and Senate president. "If it was, it would have been done a long time ago."

Dolly Yanan keeps the records and photos of the gray-faced, emaciated and disabled children believed to have been poisoned by U.S. military pollution in the Subic Bay area.

The records count 38 deaths from disease between 2000 and 2003.

But the record-keeping has begun to lapse in recent years as hope for a cleanup and enthusiasm for the cause recedes.

"For the past four or five years, we cannot track the leukemia," said Yanan, who runs a community center in Olongapo City.

A coalition of citizens known as the People’s Task Force for Bases Cleanup has fought for U.S. accountability for two decades and met with a string of disappointments.

The Philippine Senate inquiry and task force in 2000 led to no action, and a lawsuit designed to force a U.S.-led environmental assessment survey, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco, was thrown out in 2003.

"If only our government was strong enough, I think there would have been a cleanup or at least an initial assessment," Yanan said. "First, it should be our government who should have a strong will and call for a cleanup."

Nov. 8, 2009 Residents fish at the mouth of the Santa Rita river, where the U.S. Navy dumped its untreated sewage until it left Subic Bay in 1991. A landfill used by the Navy still sits along the river.