Collateral damage: Troop buildup and Guam's ecological fate
Military activities put Guam’s fish and wildlife in danger and local agencies deplore the inadequacy of impact mitigation plans
(Updated with response from JRM)
For water explorers, whales giving birth is a wondrous sight. Now picture the nature’s marvel disrupted by the horror of these marine mammals getting annihilated as a result the military’s underwater detonation exercise.
Just as government biologists hope they may be able to save Guam’s endangered species, expanded military activities on island— without adequate mitigation plans — are posing an increased threat to the island’s marine and wildlife habitat.
“Sonar, vessel interactions, explosive detonation in the water, all of these have the potential to impact marine mammals. One of the concerns from the EIS is that for all of the marine mammals that are mentioned, I don't think there's a single one that has the most current information available listed with it,” said Brent Tibbets, a biologist with the fisheries section of Guam Department of Agriculture.
One particular concern, Tibbets added, is the offshore mine detonation site in Agat. “That's almost precisely where we have photographic evidence of sperm whales giving birth which are both marine mammal and endangered species listed organisms,” he said.
Currently, the Navy’s permit allows 12,580 detonations of various magnitudes per year for five years, and 81,962 takings or killings of 26 different marine mammal species per year for five years.
“The assessment of potential effects to marine animals and habitat from underwater demolition needs more clarified and analyzed,” Agriculture director Chelsea Muna-Bretcht said in a letter to Naval Facilities Engineering Command. “The habitat mapping needs to be more detailed, the Cetacean species that utilize the area proposed for the Mariana Islands Training and Testing (MITT) need to be identified, as well as the impacts such activity will have on these species.”
Vessel strike is another area of concern. Muna-Bretcht expressed concerns about the impact of landing craft exercises on the dolphins that reside in Agat Bay. “The (Department of Navy) contended unavoidable impacts. The Navy recognizes the common occurrence of spinner dolphins within Agat Bay and has developed mitigation measures in consultation with National Marine and Fishery Service under provisions of the MMPA,” she said.
“Beachmasters are shore-based observers with binoculars whose sole purpose is to ensure safety of craft including avoidance of marine and terrestrial animals. These measures have been utilized - how successful have they been and how has that success been measured?”
The Department of Navy recently provided an update to the 2015 Final MITT Environmental Impact Statement/Overseas Environmental Impact Statement, which was intended to assess potential environmental impacts that would be caused by the Navy’s training and testing activities that include the use of active sonar and explosives. This study area covers 984,601 square nautical miles of the entire ocean across and beyond the Mariana Islands, which is larger than the states of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Montana and New Mexico combined.
Representatives from the Bureau of Statistics and Plans, Guam Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture, Guam State Historic Preservation Officer, Guam Preservation Trust, Guam Historic Preservation Review Board, Guam Waterworks Authority, and Guam Solid Waste Authority shared their comments on the potential impacts of the MITT on Guam’s environment, resources, cultural sites, and health during an informational briefing conducted by Sens. Therese Terlaje and Sabina Perez at the Guam Congress building on April 18.
“It's going to be a discussion on mitigation or project adjustments,” said Edwin Reyes, administrator of Guam Coastal Management Program. “So we want to ensure that military expended material will not pose contamination threats as material breaks down. This is not only a direct impact as the detonation occurs but any particles that may be consumed by organisms that can affect the food chain.”
The agency, he added, is concerned about any kind of seafloor detonations within Guam’s coastal zone. “With or without the presence of coral we know that the hardbottom substrate is an important area where coral polyps can settle and we want to be sure that that habitat is protected,” Reyes said.
Jesse Cruz, administrator of Guam EPA's Environmental Monitoring and Analytical Services, said military documents do not explain the rationale for an increase from a 10 lbs. underwater mine charge to the new standard of a 20 lbs. charge for the listed mine detonation activities. “What is the justification for the increase?” Cruz asked. “This needs to be further explained and justified.”
In a joint statement following the informational briefing, Terlaje and Perez said, “Guam does not have a seat at the table to say yes or no to the detonations or use of sonar in our lands and waters. But we can, for the sake of our children, make it very clear on the record that we individuals and agencies object to the cumulative harm. We are looking to our government agencies and all of our leaders to do whatever it takes to protect our resources and health.”
Following is a response from Christian P. Hodge, deputy public affairs officer of Joint Region Marianas Public Affairs.
Joint Region Marianas and the U.S. Navy are committed to environmental and cultural stewardship. We employ many protective measures to safeguard marine resources during underwater detonation training. Examples of the protective measures include the area being visually cleared by divers below and lookouts on the surface before, during and after the exercise. In addition, all training activity ceases if a person, marine mammals or other significant marine life is seen in the area. The Navy routinely conducts these types underwater detonation trainings with small amounts of explosives on a sandy area of the sea floor at the designated deep water underwater location in outer Apra Harbor and one mile north of Cabras Island. Another training location exists in Agat Bay, five miles southwest of Orote Point. This type of training has been safely and effectively conducted for more than two decades and even more recently, was evaluated by both Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) during development and review of the Marianas Islands Training and Testing Final Environmental Impact Statement (MITT FEIS), associated Biological Opinion and resulting Aug. 31, 2016 Letter of Authorization. This was all done in accordance with the multi-year environmental analysis conducted by the Navy, by which the National Marine Fisheries Service, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, granted the Navy authorization to conduct underwater detonation training. Additionally, in May of 2017 Rear Adm. Shoshana Chatfield, Joint Region Marianas Commander, met with the 34th Legislature on this topic to hear public concerns and explain the process and we continue to work with newly elected officials to ensure they have that same information. Explosive Ordinance Disposal Mobile Unit 5 performs routine underwater detonation training to develop the skills needed to be ready to rapidly respond to operational missions throughout the region to ensure a stable, free and open Indo-Pacific while they continue to provide unexploded ordnance support on Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.