Panama’s Toxic Legacy (9/00)

When the US officially handed over the Panama Canal to the Republic of Panama last December, the historic transfer was praised as the beginning a new bilateral relationship between the two countries. But in at least one important area – the environment – nothing has changed. The US no longer controls the canal, but its imperial legacy is evident in Panama in the unexploded shells, grenades, and other munitions left by the military after decades of training and arms testing. More than 110,000 pieces of undetected ordinance may be laying on the ground, or buried under the jungle canapŽ covering 7000 hectares of land, according to figures released by the US.

In the days leading up to the transfer, Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso complained that its "Good Neighbor" had cleaned up "practically nothing." Nine months later, the US claims to have fulfilled its treaty obligation, while the Panamanian government does "practically nothing" to pressure the US to account for the environmental mess it created.

Ironically, on May 8, the Panamanian Legislative Assembly expressed solidarity with Puerto Rico through a resolution in support of groups protesting the US Navy’s contamination of a bombing range on Vieques. It was a nice gesture of solidarity, but the US’ toxic legacy – the one in its own yard – has been a low priority for the Moscoso government, which has uttered nary a peep of protest since the Panama Canal’s transfer.

Governments have walked away, but the victims – the poor residents living in the communities surrounding the former military ranges – remain. An estimated 60,000 people inhabit the area, and that figure is expected to jump to about 100,000 in the next decade. Since 1980, at least 21 Panamanians have been maimed or killed after stepping on or tinkering with explosives that included mortars, live rocket warheads, and practice grenades.

Other environmental hazards are at work as well. The National Association for the Conservation of Nature, a leading non-governmental environmental group in Panama, says that the munitions show evidence of contaminants, such as depleted uranium, which is used in the protective covering of tanks, and Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the US in Vietnam. Other Panamanian officials have warned that unexploded munitions may also be contaminating ground water.

Early this year, Fernando Manfredo, a former assistant administrator of the Panama Canal, told the press that one of the worst long-term problems could be decomposition of the toxic metals and substances found in the abandoned chemical weapons, which are seeping into the ground and polluting underground water supplies.

During the past decade, the US has tried to distance itself from the issue despite protests that it has a moral obligation to clean up the toxics it left behind. In 1988, the US claimed 3250 hectares of the contaminated area was impossible to save because of the rugged terrain and dense jungle. The Department of Defense insists that removing the unexploded munitions would cost millions and take at least 15-to-20 years to complete. In November 1999, Simon Ferro, the US Ambassador to Panama, told a Panamanian television station that the US had lived up to its obligations to Panama by giving back the canal and leaving the country. Cleaning up the environmental mess was a closed chapter, he claimed.

However, the evidence reveals that the US has been irresponsible in handling the issue. In the summer of 1999, Panama’s government hired the high powered Washington, DC, law firm of Arnold and Porter to represent it on the matter. The firm used photos by Geophex UXO Ltd., an engineering firm it contracted, to show that the US hadn’t fixed the problem, and that the toxic munitions still posed a threat to human health. In response, the US government attacked the credibility of Arnold and Porter. One US official acknowledged that firm was "prestigious," but claimed that it "doesn’t have the technical expertise to determine if the US government fulfilled or didn’t fulfill its obligations under the Torrijos-Carter treaties."

The Panamanian government may be strangely silent on the issue today, but in the period surrounding the canal transfer, it all but called the US a liar. According to a report by John Lindsay-Poland of the San Francisco-based Fellowship of Reconciliation Panama Campaign, "Panamanian officials pointed to a promise made by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to send a technical team to verify Panama’s claims that the US left the explosives in plain sight on the firing ranges. Albright issued the promise during a three-hour visit to Panama on July 15, especially made to mollify those who had criticized her absence during the canal transfer ceremonies in December."

Instead of cleaning up its mess, the US has chosen to focus on keeping people away from the contaminated area. "We have always said a small portion of the ranges would have to remain off limits to people because closing them up was not practical or even possible in such cases," Susan Wood, Deputy Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, told the press last January.

In the face of official Panamanian indifference and US irresponsibility, a coalition of environmental groups has tried to bring attention to the problem, pointing out that the Panamanian controversy was part of the larger environmental issue of contamination at US military bases worldwide.

Since the early 1990s, governments, community groups, and environmental organizations have made numerous claims about the US military’s toxic legacy. The US has kept poor records on what kind of explosives were used and where, but the Army estimates that cleanup of the entire problem could cost more than $3 billion.

Last October, 70 people from 54 nations and colonies, including Japan, Iceland, Germany, Panama, and the Philippines, attended a grassroots summit in Washington, DC. The conference was organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Arc Ecology, and the Institute for Policy Studies, and the environmentalists and community activists attending met with ambassadors, members of Congress, and Pentagon officials. At its conclusion, the Summit adopted an "Environmental Bill of Rights."

Drafting the document was a positive move, but it’s doubtful anything will be done soon. The US government has shown that it has no shame concerning its toxic legacy, and Panama’s leaders exhibit no will to act. Thus, it’s up to environmental groups and activists to keep the issue alive until stronger, more concerted action can begin to resolve it.