Let Guam Decide Its Own Fate

The Pentagon wants to convert an American tropical paradise in the western Pacific into a military strip mall. And the people who live on the island lack the legal standing to resist the environmental disaster heading their way. "Welcome to Guam, where America's day begins."

The U.S. island territory is at the center of a planned American military realignment in the Pacific, the result of a 2006 agreement between Japan and the U.S. Having worn out its welcome on Okinawa because of years of friction between Marines and the local populace, the Marine Corp plans to relocate nearly half its force -- 8,000 troops -- to Guam. The Navy's attack submarine force is set to move there, and the Air Force has had a huge base on the island since 1944. Topping it off, the Pentagon, with an eye toward North Korea, wants to build a missile defense system. Over the next four to six years, the military buildup would increase the island's already large population of 180,000 by up to 40%.

All this on an island smaller than Rhode Island.

Guam already has a biodiversity crisis. Since World War II, habitat loss, along with the deliberate and accidental introduction of new species, have cost the island 80% of its native mammals and forest birds. For example, Guam's last female Mariana crow, a critically endangered species, died last month. The population of the Mariana Fruit Bat, a species endemic to the Marianas, is down to seven on the island, and the Guam Kingfisher survives only in captivity. The Guam Rail population, a flightless bird, has bounced back from 10 to a few hundred thanks only to an aggressive captive-breeding program.

The Pentagon's military buildup would accelerate the environment's deterioration. The Navy, for example, wants to dredge 71 acres of exquisite coral habitat in Guam's Apra Harbor to build an aircraft carrier base. That would put the Hawksbill sea turtle, another endangered species, in the crosshairs. The Navy insists these turtles are transient visitors to the harbor's reefs, but local divers report daily sightings. The base would further shrink Guam's terrestrial habitat and the dredging possibly silt over neighboring coral reefs.

Because the Environmental Protection Act applies to U.S. territories as well as the states, the Pentagon was required to file an Environmental Impact Statement on its proposed buildup on Guam. The Environmental Protection Agency rated an early draft as "environmentally unsatisfactory" because it failed to address the issues of water supply and sewage treatment for the expected population growth. The draft also said that the dredging in Apra Harbor "would result in unacceptable impacts" to the harbor's coral ecosystem.

The final impact statement is, overall, dishonest. It doesn't solve the wastewater problem, glosses over the loss of the coral reef and turns a blind eye toward the potential risks to neighboring reef caused by the dredging.

Guam's wastewater treatment plants are already in violation of the Clean Water Act. The island's sole aquifer and source of drinking water, located beneath Anderson Air Force Base, is a superfund site as a result of decades of hazardous solvent and fuel spills.

The people of Guam are being asked to pay a staggering price for the enhanced U.S. military presence in the western Pacific. Already, the Guam outside military perimeters is rapidly becoming an urban sprawl of fast-food franchises and big box stores, with traffic gridlock on most roadways. The introduction of the Western diet has taken a toll on the native Chamorro: obesity and Type II diabetes are major public health problems on the island.

Tragically, Guamanians have no legal way to resist what is happening to them and their island. According to the United Nations, Guam is one of 16 non-decolonized, non-self-governing territories left in the world. It lacks a constitution (not to mention voting representation in Congress) and true self-determination, as most Americans understand the term.

But it's not too late to change direction. In June, the U.S. and Japan put off plans to close the Okinawa base, in part because of cost concerns. In addition, three prominent members of the Senate Armed Forces Committee have proposed an alternative to the realignment plan that would relieve some of the pressure on Guam's environment. The Obama administration should hear them out.

Most important, Congress should end Guam's colonial status and make it a commonwealth like Puerto Rico. Imposing environmentally ruinous military development on an American population that lacks a constitution seems the antithesis of the American idea. The people of Guam should be able to decide the fate of their island home, not the Pentagon.

Jim Haw is director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife College. David Ginsburg, a marine biologist, is a lecturer in the program. The two recently returned from Guam.