Can we at least talk about it?

May 2, 2017

   The images of tons of water erupting from the surface, mushroom clouds and widespread potential damage to reefs and local marine wildlife probably filled the heads of many who happened to catch a recent Pacific Island Times story on social media.

 

    The story of the U.S. Navy's planned underwater detonation of explosives originally scheduled for April 27 and 28 became widely shared on social media in no small part due to the U.S. Coast Guard’s communication dismissing the need to solicit public input. The Coast Guard said that since it only had 49 days’ notice, there wasn't enough time to discuss the restrictions at Apra Outer Harbor and Piti.

 

    Well, I won't argue whether it's “Apra Outer Harbor” or “Outer Harbor Harbor” since both are used, but at least no one is calling it a “harbour.” That would “colour” me bad if we used the British spelling that only Lord Nelson's Navy could be proud of.  We didn't break our colonial relationship with the British only to end up repeating the same colonial polices ourselves. Or did we? 

 

    Well, naming aside, the U.S. code referenced by the Coast Guard in allowing it to bypass the requirement for “notice of proposed rule making” also says that it only need 30 days’ notice, so I'm not sure why 49 days wasn't enough time to accommodate public comments.

 

     Coast Guard referenced the provision in 5 U.S.C 553(b), which authorizes an agency (in this case, the Coast Guard) to issue a rule without prior notice or comment if deemed “impractical, unnecessary or contrary to the public interest.”

 

    It's good that exceptions can be made and that rules are not too rigid to force impracticality. However, this provision seems to reflect a loophole that allows any agency to get around the normal public commenting process. And indeed, the Coast Guard apparently attempted to use this loophole  because having a comment period was deemed “impractical.”

 

    By the way, that 30-day rule? Yeah, that's 5 U.S.C. 553(d). I won't quote it because I'm not a lawyer, and I won't play one in the media. But I do know that 30 days is 19 fewer than 49, and I'm not a mathematician either. I think 19 days is long enough to have a comment period. Sure, I know most federal rules and notices of proposed rule-making take far longer than 19 days, but if the alternative is zero days, I think most residents in the affected area would prefer a short period. 

 

    When you’re engaged in public relations with sensitive local issues that have historical context on Guam like water and land use, you should err on the side of giving the local public a chance to speak up. 

 

   Now back to those visions of mushroom clouds and 500-lb bombs going off on the reef. Actually, it's more like four 1.25 lb. explosives used for training. Not quite the large explosions in the stock photo. It reminds me of a recent CNN headline about a “nuclear sub” making a port call in South Korea. Yes, it's nuclear-powered, but not nuclear armed. In the context of tensions over North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons program, it’s very relevant and could be misleading. But just like other global stories that take a life of their own on social media, local stories can go viral too when a popular narrative is touched upon. And it's pretty popular when the feds don’t seem to respect local input, regardless of the code and paragraph cited.

 

    This was pretty clear from Sen. Fernando Esteves’ letter to Rear Admiral Chatfield.  A bit heavy handed, but the message was received.  The happy ending is that the Navy has rescheduled its underwater detonation training to May in order to receive public input.

 

    Sometimes, just listening makes all the difference.  And as a side note, it looks like CNN updated its story regarding the USS Michigan submarine removing the word “nuclear” from the headline. Maybe a senator wrote them a letter as well.  It's an SSGN not an SSBN.  That “B” stands for “ballistic” as in, “ballistic nuclear missile” or  “people are going ballistic over this story!” This is where that one letter makes a big difference (unlike the “u” in harbour.)

 

    Now we can go back to fighting over whether it's “Apra Outer Harbor” or “Outer Apra Harbor.” 

Joseph Meyers is a long-time resident of Guam. He lives in Tamuning.

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