By Bryan Manabat
Saipan—In its bid to be perpetually ready for a potential war in the Indo-Pacific region, the Department of Defense is beefing up its facilities and increasing defense exercises on Tinian, a quiet island with a population of 3,500.
The U.S. military’s war readiness has consequences that are hardly discussed in the open. One of them is the subsequent buildup of military waste, which is a looming crisis for the island that lacks a proper facility to hold debris from increased military construction and other defense activities.
Tinian Mayor Edwin Aldan said the island does not even have a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act-compliant landfill for solid waste generated by the civilian population. "Solid waste management for Tinian has become a very critical issue that affects the entire CNMI and demands the attention of not only municipal leaders but the CNMI governor and legislature,” Aldan said.
The municipality of Tinian does not have the necessary resources to construct and efficiently operate a compliant landfill, Aldan said.
Tinian played a significant role during World War II. From its airfield, the U.S. launched the atomic bombings of Japan. In last month’s interview with Nikkei Asia, Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, commander of Pacific Air Forces, said Tinian’s north airfield will become an “extensive” facility once work has been completed to reclaim it from the jungle that has grown over the base since the last U.S. Army Air Force units abandoned it in 1946. “If you pay attention in the next few months, you will see significant progress, especially at Tinian North,” Nikkei Asia quoted Wilsbach as saying.
The U.S. military has invested $162 million on Tinian to construct a divert airfield project that includes a tarmac for an aircraft parking spot and a training facility. The project is estimated to be completed in October 2025. The defense department is leasing two-thirds of Tinian's limited land for 40 years.
The solid waste generation figures and the solid waste handling requirement for the proposed military action on Tinian were only recently reported in a solid waste study conducted in August 2014 related to joint military training. Data in the report identified 3 to 4 tons per day of solid waste to be generated by military exercises. The preliminary study identified approximately 12.8 tons per day after the military recycled about 40 percent of military solid waste.
The tonnage was only to be generated during peak periods of training that would last 20 weeks per year. This is a conservative number—meaning, it is on the “high side.” The training periods were only expected for 20 weeks per year (or 38 percent of the year).
Averaging the waste over 52 weeks, the CNMI Solid Waste Management Plan indicated that military training would generate an estimated average of 4.9 tons per day. This accounts for 129 percent of the waste expected per day on Tinian without military training waste. The figures, based on a study from nine years ago, will be updated in a study that is expected to be released in the fall of 2024.
In an environmental impact statement released in April 2015, the Department of Navy identified locations that have “potential and confirmed contaminated sites” resulting from previous military activities on Tinian. An environmental baseline survey conducted in 1997 identified several U.S. military sites of environmental concern on Tinian due to the presence of materials and wastes that have been recognized as hazardous.
“However, they have not all been evaluated and confirmed to be contaminated. The sites identified consisted of fuel drum sites, hazardous materials sites, and concentrated ordnance sites,” the report said. “While an Environmental Baseline Survey is not a comprehensive assessment of contamination, in response, the U.S. military, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the CNMI have established mitigation and cleanup activities.”
The Tinian leadership is currently working with the defense department to obtain land from a military-leased area to build a new solid waste landfill facility. Aldan noted that the location and the size of the existing landfill are not adequate to support the military growth on island. "This is why we are aggressively pursuing the construction of a new landfill in the military-leased area," he added.
The target site for a new landfill is located in Atgidon. "Major General Mark A. Hashimoto and his team have been great partners working with us to resolve a very complicated solid waste management issue,” Aldan said. “We are confident that with continued focus and importance given to this issue by all stakeholders, we will be able to provide Tinian with a solid waste management facility that will incorporate the increased volume from military activities.”
The new landfill project will be funded through grants from the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act, or ASADRA.
"The proposed Atgidon area already has an environmental assessment and we have prioritized this project in Tinian's portion of the Integrated CNMI Solid Waste Plan to obtain the necessary priority ranking and funding from the ASADRA grant to construct the facility,” Aldan said. “We are hopeful that the governor, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Planning and Development acknowledge the challenges that lie ahead for Tinian and give the highest priority to this project in the allocation of the ASADRA funds to secure the necessary funds to construct a new RCRA-compliant landfill.”