Navy to take at least 2 years to assess possible Guam training areas
UPDATED NOV. 16, 11:40 A.M. EST.
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — It will take at least two more years for the U.S. Navy to decide where to put controversial Marine Corps training ranges that are part of a planned military buildup on Guam, according to documents filed Tuesday by U.S. attorneys in Hawaii district court.
In the meantime, the Navy will again weigh the environmental effects of locating the machine gun and grenade ranges along the territory’s eastern shore where residents fear it will encroach on ancestral land and ancient burial grounds, the court brief said.
A setback for U.S. military plans to move thousands of Marines from Okinawa to Guam, the announcement is a victory, at least for now, to Guam residents who want the U.S. to find a different location for the ranges.
“This is what should have occurred in the beginning,” Guam Sen. Judi Guthertz, chairman of the legislature’s military buildup committee, wrote in a released statement. “I consider it a victory for reason and sensibility.”
The civic group We Are Guahan, one of the groups suing to force the Navy and Department of Defense to find another site for the ranges, was still reviewing the court filing on Wednesday, member Leevin Camacho said.
“DOD’s filing appears to shows that, one year after the plaintiffs sued them, it has finally agreed with our position,” Camacho wrote in an email response to Stars and Stripes.
The delay also provides Congress with more time to scrutinize the planned repositioning of forces in the Pacific, especially as the Pentagon faces deep cuts to its budget.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. visited the region in May and returned, demanding the Pentagon reconsider the entire Pacific realignment.
A month later, the panel’s Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support approved a measure that would bar any spending in the coming year for the Pacific realignment until the Defense Department conducts a new study to justify the costs. The Government Accountability Office has estimated the required Guam infrastructure buildup would cost $24 billion. The U.S. could foot at least $15 billion of that amount in the next five years, plus an unspecified amount of additional funds expected for Guam’s missile defense.
In the court brief, U.S. attorneys were asking the court to dismiss the groups’ lawsuit, arguing that the Navy has yet to decide on a location for the ranges. The Navy’s additional environmental studies will put project groundbreaking off until at least 2014, and thus alternate locations for the ranges might be found in the process, they argued.
“The Navy expects the [supplemental environmental impact statement] to take a minimum of two years to complete after the process formally commences in early 2012, and the Navy will complete the SEIS for the live-fire training range complex before any final decision on the location of the range training complex is made,” according to a statement by the director of the Joint Guam Program Office, which is in charge of coordinating the military buildup.
The training ranges are needed to support 8,600 Okinawa Marines who are expected to be permanently relocated to Guam, according to a U.S.-Japan bilateral agreement that has been troubled by public opposition in both places.
The Navy also recently decided to launch a new environmental assessment of its plans to dredge coral from territory’s main harbor to make way for visiting U.S. aircraft carriers, which will delay the buildup project for at least two years. That project has raised environmental concerns among residents and federal regulatory agencies over how much coral and wildlife could be damaged.
Meanwhile, the Okinawa government has refused to accept plans to relocate a Marine Corps air station from the central area of the island to a less populated but environmentally sensitive coastal area farther north.