The military exists to engage in seemingly endless war, but the damage doesn't stop during peace time. For decades, the US military (and many others around the world) has been systematically destroying the Earth and the very nations they're sworn to protect. Disregard for the natural world and those that inhabit it has resulted in the US military becoming the largest single polluter in the world, destroying large swaths of land, and poisoning foreigners and Americans alike. Can this machine be stopped?

Additionally, this week we're joined by activist and journalist Sophia Perez for a special interview on the military's plans to destroy islands of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands - plans we're running out of time to stop.

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Chapters

  • 01:57 Around the World
  • 10:21 Sophia Perez
  • 12:08 CNMI
  • 15:36 Original Bargain
  • 17:42 How does the military sell this idea?
  • 21:10 Natural Connection
  • 26:09 Alternative Zero Coalition
  • 27:35 NEPA
  • 30:25 Resistance
  • 35:30 What can we learn from the Marianas?
  • 42:43 How can we help?
  • 46:07 Colonialism is not over
  • 50:53 Domestic Damage
  • 54:50 Open Burn Pits
  • 1:04:40 The Military, Trust, and Health
  • 1:09:21 Perpetual War
  • 1:11:58 "Dude, where's my nukes?"
  • 1:14:48 What can we do?
  • 1:17:15 What is the purpose of military?

(This transcript needs work; sorry for the machine version until we can fix it)


David Torcivia:

I'm David Torcivia

Daniel Forkner:

I'm Daniel Forkner

David Torcivia:

[0:03] And this is Ashes Ashes, a show about systemic issues, cracks in civilization, collapse of the environment, and if we're unlucky, the end of the world.

Daniel Forkner:

[0:12] But if we learn from all of this, maybe we can stop that. The world might be broken, but it doesn't have to be.

Sophia Perez:

[0:18] Colonialism is not over. The exploitation of indigenous people is not over. If at any point you learned in school, or just, like, in your own reading about the genocide of the Native Americans, and you thought, "How could that have happened? How could people have just sat by while this clear injustice was happening?" it's still happening, and that combination of ignorance, of complacency, of racism on the part of the people who are actually exploiting these people, it's all completely still happening.

David Torcivia:

[0:52] That's Sophia Perez, an activist highlighting some of the issues we're gonna be discussing today, but more of that later on in this episode. For most of us, the images of the military live far away. They are in history books, news reports, images online. Maybe we know somebody who served in combat or is a veteran. But it's something that is very distant from us. The idea of war and the casualties that that inflicts is something that most of us do not encounter in our day-to-day life. And while militaries exist to fight wars, in between those wars, they're still busy dropping bombs, firing bullets, and preparing for whatever that next inevitable conflict may be, and those actions have consequences as well. Though they're not bombing enemy militants or accidentally hitting civilians, they are bombing land, islands, training ranges. They're emitting toxins, poisoning water tables, and so much more, and those actions have consequences--consequences that we're gonna explore in today's episode as we look into the environmental collateral damage of modern military.

Around The World

Daniel Forkner:

[1:57] David, in 1898, the United States took over Puerto Rico from Spain... [2:03] And ever since then, has in many ways abused the island for its natural resources. In addition to these resources, the island has been very valuable to the United States strategically as a forward base for naval ships and military operations, and as part of strategic preparations, the U.S. military displaced thousands of Puerto Ricans from their homes to acquire land, including 2/3 of the island Vieques, just off the eastern coast of the Puerto Rican mainland. [2:32] The military pushed these residents of Vieques to the center of the island so that they could conduct bombing and training on the east coast and dump spent shells and other waste on the West Coast. From 1940 to 2003, the U.S. tested just about every weapon in its arsenal on the island, including Agent Orange, and it even fired depleted uranium shells, and as you might expect, this left the island devastated. The Environmental Protection Agency classified the entire island and surrounding waters as a Superfund site on its National Priorities List in 2005, including it among the other most toxic and contaminated sites in the United States. [3:14] And you would think that this puts the burden of cleanup and restoration on the U.S. military, specifically the Navy, but they found an interesting way to avoid responsibility. Shortly after the Navy left the island, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife conveniently transformed most of the land into a wildlife refuge, meaning that the Navy legally cannot clear out those unexploded bombs and deal with the contamination, because that would require disturbing a wildlife refuge. And we don't want to do that, do we? Outside of this refuge, over 50 sites were identified that required immediate attention, and the Navy has conducted this cleanup by detonating unexploded bombs in the air and burning vegetation, a process likely to add more pollution to the air and surrounding area, and which has prompted one local scientist to comment, quote, "I've come to think that maybe it's better for the Navy not to do anything," end quote. [4:10] David, this reminds me of people who, when they're asked to do the dishes or fold the laundry, you know, they just do it so poorly that their spouse or whoever asks them to stop and takes over for them. You know, our military is like, "Oh, you want me to clean this area up? Are you sure?" and then proceeds to just detonate bombs in the air and create open air burn pits.

David Torcivia:

[4:30] Yeah, that's a strategy I think that ends up worse for everyone, but what else is new here? And this is such a great example, and the legacy of the military's actions on this island are absolutely still living on right now with very severe consequences for the people around them. Plants and animals on the island have extremely high levels of lead, copper, nickel, and other heavy metals, which make their way into the local food supply by other animals consuming them in the food chain, and, in fact, animals on the island have 50 times the concentration of lead in their bodies when compared to animals on the mainland.

Daniel Forkner:

[5:01] 80% of the locals test positive for off-the-charts levels of lead, aluminum, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium in their hair.

David Torcivia:

[5:11] And this has real consequences. Asthma, skin disease, kidney failure, and heart problems occur at extremely high rates on the island.

Daniel Forkner:

[5:19] Vieques locals have a 56% higher chance of dying from cancer, eight times higher risk of death from heart disease, and a seven times higher risk of death from diabetes than people on the Puerto Rico island.

David Torcivia:

[5:32] What's interesting about this topic is that there are many acres of wildlands and public land in America that have been contaminated from numerous old military operations. This is not something unique to far-off islands or places outside of the domestic, contiguous U.S. Parts of Martha's Vineyard is still littered with bombs to this day. In the Rocky Mountains, where chemical weapons were built and dumped, the legacy lives on. Parts of the old Fort McClellan base in Alabama, which has a long history of contamination, was also conveniently converted to a wildlife refuge, delaying cleanup, and in 2008, a Florida middle school dug up 400 live bombs beneath their playgrounds, including one under a sand plate that--land which was donated by the military.

Daniel Forkner:

[6:18] Another example, David, of places outside the United States that have been affected by military operations include the Philippines. In December of 1991, the Philippine government rejected U.S. desire to renew a ten-year lease for military presence there, citing America's colonial relationship with the Philippines as an insult to their sovereignty. Now, at the time, The New York Times predicted that this would be disastrous for the Philippine economy because of the aid we provided in exchange for our military presence, although, as we touched on in our episode "Debt End," David, foreign aid money rarely comes without strings attached. In addition, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander at the time described the strategic value of the Philippines bases, and one of the reasons was an abundant source of cheap Filipino labor. But, anyway, we left, and in our wake, the Philippines had a massive environmental problem to deal with.

David Torcivia:

[7:12] While we were there, the U.S. Navy injected 3.75 million gallons of untreated sewage into the fishing and swimming waters every single day. Fuel and other chemicals were pumped into underground tanks with no leak protections, and some actually were pumped directly into the ground, no tanks, leading to contamination of the water table. Land used as dumping grounds are highly toxic, and include dangerous asbestos and many other pollutants.

Daniel Forkner:

[7:40] Today, people who live and work around these abandoned U.S. bases now suffer from lung disease, leukemia, miscarriages and stillbirths, skin disease, heart disease, and various cancers, along with birth defects including cerebral palsy, and the U.S. position on this is pretty incredible, David. Essentially, what we are saying is that we have no responsibility to clean any of this up, because when we left the Philippines, well, they got to keep our infrastructure and our real estate, so we're even. Now, remember what The New York Times was reporting in 1991 during this controversy. They were saying, "Hey, if the Philippines kick us out, boo hoo for them, because their economy is gonna collapse because of all these jobs we are providing for them." But today, when we're faced with the claims of environmental problems, we're saying, "Hey, we left you all this real estate. We're even." And let's be clear here: we colonized the Philippines. We subjugated their people. We used them for cheap labor in these military bases and elsewhere. We dumped our toxic waste on their ground, and then, when they forced us out, we said, "Okay. Well, then, you can have the land back that we took from you, and that means we're even."

David Torcivia:

[8:48] This story is repeated countlessly around the world over and over in so many foreign locations. In Okinawa, Japan, locals are fighting against U.S. pollution of the island and of the actions and behavior of the Marines stationed there, to the point where the U.S. is forced to relocate many of these soldiers to other places, something we'll discuss in a moment. In Korea, many local activists are trying to push the United States away from the occupation of their country. The same in bases across the Middle East. In fact, the U.S. has over 800 foreign military bases in over 70 countries around the world, almost all of them with severe environmental problems.

Daniel Forkner:

[9:25] Not even to mention, David, the legacy of chemical warfare and other contamination we directly imposed on foreign people, like the 5 million Vietnamese that were exposed, to Agent Orange and who continue to be exposed through their food, their drinking water, and the air that they breathe.

David Torcivia:

[9:41] Or the 80 million unexploded cluster bombs that still cover the land of Laos because of the shadow bombing campaign that occurred there during the Vietnam War. These examples are endless.

Daniel Forkner:

[9:51] They are endless, David, and many of them are historical, although they are ongoing, but I think that these examples should serve as cautionary tales and should inform the way we go forward. With the way we perceive the military, with the way that we respond to it, and to help provide some perspective on some ongoing struggles, we wanted to do this episode to highlight what is going on in the Northern Mariana Islands, and to help explain that to us, we're gonna be joined by Sophia Perez.

Sophia Perez

Daniel Forkner:

[10:22] So we're here with Sophia Perez. She's an activist and journalist with heritage from the Marianas. She grew up in San Francisco, and she's here to tell us about the U.S. military's desire to turn two islands in the Marianas--Tinian and Pagan--into a military testing site for bombings and live fire and that kind of thing, and she's here to tell us about how that's going to impact the local people there and what they're doing to resist what will essentially be the eradication of islands that are very important not just to their cultural identity, but to their very lives. So, Sophia, thanks for joining us.

Sophia Perez:

[10:54] Thanks so much for having me on.

David Torcivia:

[10:55] So maybe we should start this conversation with a brief overview of what's going on and what the CNMI is and--just get people who aren't acquainted with something that--I mean, this is a commonwealth of the United States, but we never think about it or talk about it, and so just laying down the very initial basic conversation of what's going on here is really important.

Sophia Perez:

[11:16] Right. Yeah. And it's that lack of familiarity with the CNMI, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, that contributes to a lack of accountability when it comes to military actions out there, so I'm happy to introduce people to the Mariana Islands. They've probably heard of Guam, but north of Guam are 15 more Islands in the archipelago, and they have a different territorial status than Guam. Guam is basically a modern colony. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is--[indistinct] it joined the U.S. family voluntarily through the signing of a covenant in 1976. So there are two indigenous peoples that live there. There's the Chamorros, and they've been there for 4,000 years--it's one of the oldest lasting civilizations in the Pacific--and there are the Carolinians, and they have been there for 200 years. They migrated after a particularly bad typhoon about 200 years ago.

David Torcivia:

[12:08] Can you give us a little bit of information about the two islands in question with this whole movement right now?

CNMI

Sophia Perez:

[12:14] Sure. So Tinian is not the most populated by any means, but it's one of the more substantial ones. The most populated island is Saipan. I guess actually Saipan's the one with about 50,000 people on it. Tinian has 3,500.

David Torcivia:

[12:27] Wow.

Sophia Perez:

[12:28] Yeah. Tinian, some people might have heard of it because that's where the atomic bomb--the plane with the atomic bomb that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki--launched from. So there's a lot of World War II history on all of these islands, but Tinian is particularly--gets a lot of tourism because of that. The other one is Pagan. Pagan used to have a civilization on it. Right now, it's got about 11 people living out there in the boonies.

Daniel Forkner:

[12:50] You've been to Pagan, right?

Sophia Perez:

[12:52] Yes. It's beautiful. It's untapped, and it's a place of serious spiritual significance to the Chamorro people and the Carolinian people. It's an ancestral homeland, and if you talk to any of the activists who are trying to protect it--and I can say that I have felt this as well--when you get there, there is a certain feeling of having come home. It feels like you're interacting with ancestors. It's a very special place to the people of the Marianas.

Daniel Forkner:

[13:20] That's something I want to talk about a little bit more later on, is this cultural significance of these islands.

Sophia Perez:

[13:24] Mm-hmm.

Daniel Forkner:

[13:25] But to understand what's going on here, can we set up the situation? So 9,000 U.S. Marines got kicked off the island of Okinawa, Japan. Is that correct? And so they were sent back to Guam, where they're gonna be stationed instead, but in order to accommodate them, the U.S. military wants to expand their live-fire testing and bombing operations on these islands for all these new Marines that are gonna be stationed there.

Sophia Perez:

[13:51] Right. I believe--I think they're still on Okinawa.

David Torcivia:

[13:53] Yeah. There's still bases there.

Sophia Perez:

[13:53] They haven't you moved to Guam yet.

David Torcivia:

[13:55] Mm-hmm.

Sophia Perez:

[13:55] Yeah. They are not popular among the Okinawans. Even recently, there was a huge protest against the moving of one base from a more populated part of Okinawa to a less populated part of Okinawa. They're shuffling around these Marines, but the people of Okinawa really just don't want them there.

David Torcivia:

[14:12] Yeah, and we'll go into more depth later on in this episode exactly why that's the case, but it's everything from environmental concerns to the behavior of the Marines themselves.

Sophia Perez:

[14:21] Right. Right. But what sort of created the need for these training ranges was, yes, the plan to relocate the Marines that were stationed in Okinawa and were deteriorating the relationship between the U.S. government and the people of Okinawa, taking them over to Guam and creating military bases there, which was a process that many Chamorros were not happy with either, 'cause it involves just, like, destroying old-growth forests and cultural sites on Guam as well, but that's what created the necessity to have these training ranges in the Northern Marianas, is these Marines need to have their MAGTF training, so that means going out and doing, like, stuff on live-fire training ranges, like, once a week, once a month.

David Torcivia:

[14:59] Mm-hmm.

Daniel Forkner:

[15:00] Actually, I think the historical example that most closely mirrors, like, what you guys are going through in the Marianas is Vieques, that island off of Puerto Rico.

Sophia Perez:

[15:08] Absolutely. Absolutely.

Daniel Forkner:

[15:10] It just seems very similar to me, like this is the beginning stages of what they went through.

Sophia Perez:

[15:15] Right, and the way that the indigenous people of Vieques were able to--well, I don't know if they count as indigenous, but the people, the island residents of Vieques--were able to get their island back was by putting out the word and having various celebrities, athletes, whatever, start to talk about this issue, so that's what brought it to the mainland, so I just really appreciate you guys creating a platform for this to come to the mainland.

Original Bargain

Daniel Forkner:

[15:37] And so as you alluded to with the plane that took off from Tinian, the U.S. military has a history of occupying, in some form, these islands, right?

Sophia Perez:

[15:45] Mm-hmm.

Daniel Forkner:

[15:45] But there was a bargain that happened a while back that established the original intent of the U.S. military on Tinian. I think they took over 2/3 of the island, but in exchange, they promised a hospital.

Sophia Perez:

[15:57] Mm-hmm.

Daniel Forkner:

[15:57] They didn't mention that they were gonna do any type of...

Sophia Perez:

[16:00] Bombing.

Daniel Forkner:

[16:00] Destruction in the area, exactly. And are they now using that initial occupation as justification for increased activity in the area, or have they tried to apply or ask permission? What exactly is the process by which they're trying to do all these additional activities?

Sophia Perez:

[16:19] You know, it's funny, because it's sort of an unprecedented situation, and the process is kind of being--from what I can understand--sort of being negotiated as it happens. The military will not follow any rule that they're not held accountable to following, so, yes, currently they're leasing the northern 2/3 of Tinian, which they got during the signing of the CNMI Covenant, but that lease had certain expectations, one of which was that anything they do to that land, it should be able to be returned after the lease in the same way that they found it, and the military has a very loose interpretation of what exactly that would mean. If they are creating live-fire training ranges on Tinian, if that actually happens, they're gonna be dropping thousands, hundreds of thousands of bombs and shooting missiles and just destroying the place, so yes, there are some rules, but the interpretation of those rules is sometimes just, like, way out of whack on the part of the military. But the governor of the CNMI, Governor Ralph Torres, has given the military a firm "no" on this plan, so I think that they're basically waiting out--there's an election going on right now--they're waiting out to see if he gets re-elected, and I think they're gonna go from there as far as what their next steps are. They can go to the Senate and try and take the islands over eminent domain. We'll see.

David Torcivia:

[17:34] Yeah, and if that happens, I don't think there's probably a lot of hope in this current administration, unfortunately.

Sophia Perez:

[17:39] Right. Right. I think that that would pass easily.

Daniel Forkner:

[17:42] Can you speak to how this is being sold by the U.S. military to locals on the ground? Because I think you mentioned--or one of the activists you interviewed in your own podcast, which we'll share on the web page, and--

Sophia Perez:

[17:54] Thank you.

How Does The Military Sell This Idea?

Daniel Forkner:

[17:55] We encourage everybody to listen to--someone mentioned that the military, like you just said, they have to return the island the way they found it, and they're still promising that, right? I mean...

Sophia Perez:

[18:05] Yes.

Daniel Forkner:

[18:06] Even though they say they're gonna be bombing the place, what have they said? That they're gonna move the animals out of the way, and then return them? Is that true? They're really telling people that?

Sophia Perez:

[18:13] Oh, it's amazing what they say. I know Rosemond Santos, who's a founding member of Guardians of Gani, said that a military rep told her that Pagan would look exactly the same in ten years as it looks today, because the U.S. Navy is the best environmental steward in the world, and they want to drop 1,000-pound bombs on Pagan.

David Torcivia:

[18:36] Yeah. Literally millions of these bombs.

Sophia Perez:

[18:38] Yeah. And...

Daniel Forkner:

[18:40] Poster child for environmental stewardship right there.

Sophia Perez:

[18:42] Yeah. Oh, man. And then, on Tinian, so the northern 2/3 of Tinian are leased by the military, but the people of Tinian still have access to certain parts of it, at least most of the time, and on that swath of land is a very important fishing ground, and so when people had, like, public hearings where the Navy was announcing this plan, when people were like, "Oh, well, that's our fishing ground. We want to go over there. Where are we gonna fish?" the Navy apparently told them not to worry because they would move the fish to an accessible area.

David Torcivia:

[19:16] Well, I think that's an important point we want to drive home with this, is that a lot of the conversation is about these islands, but it also includes the reefs around the islands--they're gonna be targeted by bombing--as well as the larger body of water in the whole area. There are hundreds of millions of square miles that are gonna be involved in this larger naval testing area, and gonna involve training, live fire, and, as we've talked about in just last week's episode, these are already stressed areas where the environment, where these fishing stocks are already under pressure from bass fishing fleets, from trawling, from environmental concerns. We talked about deoxygenation, warming of the waters, acidification. All of this is already stressed, and the addition of dropping bombs, of the chemicals that are associated with these, are just gonna stress it even more, which, of course, impacts the life of the people on these islands. Even if they're not directly on Tinian or Pagan, or if they're outside of this area, then they're still gonna be impacted by these exercises occurring on the area around them.

Sophia Perez:

[20:14] Exactly, and there are also endangered species living on the lands. Pagan is one of the only places where the Mariana fruit bat is flourishing, and so the Navy doesn't really care about that. There's also, like, a species of snail that only exist on Pagan.

David Torcivia:

[20:28] Mm-hmm.

Sophia Perez:

[20:29] It's sort of like a little Galapagos, and nobody cares. It's kind of funny, just talking about that little snail, I was talking to one of the activists, and she's in part of the Guardians of Gani, and she's the captain of the boat that takes people up to the northern islands, and she said, "Look, most people don't care about a little snail. In fact, even the Chamorros, I don't know how much they care about a little snail." You know? But the Chamorros, or the indigenous people of the Mariana Islands, they are that little snail. They are that tiny population that only exists in one little place, and they have every right to exist...

David Torcivia:

[21:03] Mm-hmm.

Sophia Perez:

[21:04] Even if they don't--I don't know--they're not prioritized by the U.S. Navy or even known by the people of the mainland.

Daniel Forkner:

[21:10] Well, then let me ask you this about this human element going on here, because...

Natural Connection

[21:15] I think it was Genevieve that you interviewed, said that human beings, we have a natural connection with place, with home.

Sophia Perez:

[21:20] Absolutely.

Daniel Forkner:

[21:21] And even here in America, she brought up a great point, which is that when we send our troops overseas and they die, we always send their body home so that they can be buried at home.

Sophia Perez:

[21:31] Mm-hmm.

Daniel Forkner:

[21:31] It's very important to us, this connection we have with home. But when it comes to disrupting the homes of other people, it seems like it's always presented to us in a very technocratic, this kind of pros-cons list type of way, where we say, you know, "Yes, we're gonna displace X number of people and partially destroy the environment, but we can calculate those costs, weigh them against the benefits, and then, in a few decades, when we have to settle a whole bunch of litigation for all these people that now have cancer..."

Sophia Perez:

[21:59] Mm-hmm.

Daniel Forkner:

[21:59] "Who have lung disease, well, we can pay them the cost of that, and we still come out ahead." And I really feel like this very formulaic way of looking at the world is kind of absurd. Can you speak to why these islands are important to the locals here and how destroying them harms them in ways that go beyond any type of dollar figure that we can figure out?

Sophia Perez:

[22:21] Absolutely. I mean, to take sort of a simplistic view that I think is easily understood by mainland Americans or anybody, the Marianas are a tourism-based economy. That's their bread and butter. So if you even want to just keep it about money, they cannot make money if these islands are bombed. No one wants to go on vacation next to a bombing range. You know, Tinian will be destroyed, and, yes, people can live on the bottom third of the Island still, but no responsible parent would ever raise their family in an environment like that. So to even take it further, say the economy is kind of in ruins, right? Because now nobody's visiting.

Daniel Forkner:

[23:00] Right.

Sophia Perez:

[23:01] And people can't live on Tinian. Are those people gonna move to Saipan, which is only three miles away, where you can still hear and smell the bombing, or are they gonna move to the mainland? Are they join the diaspora in Boise, in California? Probably the latter. And so what you have now is these indigenous people who are spreading out further and further. That means the loss of language. That means loss of culture. These people need to stay together to maintain their identity, and if their islands are turned into bombing ranges, are completely destroyed, they have no reason or way of staying at home, and they're alienated from their culture, which, like I said, stems back 4,000 years. It's a huge part of who they are. And I guess the final thing is that there are a lot of Chamorro burial grounds, and there's very old archaeological findings in all of these areas, so--and another aspect of their identity being lost, which is the eradication and destruction of their history.

David Torcivia:

[23:58] I think this question, Daniel, really ties into that point that we're always trying to drive home that this over-quantification of everything, where we have to calculate it all in terms of dollars and numbers and lives impacted years cut off a lifespan that you can then convert to, "Okay, so then we owe them X amount of dollars for that," is really a sickness on the world, and it does such a bad job calculating these intangible things that you can't, like you said, convert easily into a dollar sign. So what is the cost of a culture spreading out, becoming a diaspora? You can't assign a value to that. What is the cost of a beautiful, pristine landscape being destroyed? If people's lives aren't impacted there--like if you're not actually killing people or making them sick--if you're just destroying a beautiful place, there's no dollar sign you can assign to that. What's the cost of a species of snail that might be lost? You can't assign a dollar to that, unless it has some sort of pharmaceutical thing that pops up, and suddenly, "Oh, no, we need to protect this snail, because it can make us money." Outside of that, there's no way to assign value to these very natural, beautiful things that anybody would agree, when you come and look at this, like, of course this has value.

Sophia Perez:

[25:03] Another thing I'd like to add is just this entire approach to military training where you irrevocably destroy an island, it's unsustainable. Even if they win every battle, they bomb every island they want to, eventually the U.S. Navy will not have any more islands to bomb, and then they'll have to make a change, and they'll have to figure out how to train differently.

David Torcivia:

[25:24] Well, it doesn't stop the Navy from poisoning the U.S. states either, so...

Sophia Perez:

[25:28] That's true. At the end of the day--and this is something that the activists say a lot--is, like, we only have one Earth, and we can't grow more land. So...

David Torcivia:

[25:37] Mm-hmm.

Daniel Forkner:

[25:37] Mm-hmm.

Sophia Perez:

[25:38] So this idea of just destroying Earth as if it has, like, a dollar amount, when really it cannot be recreated, it's just stupid. It doesn't make sense.

David Torcivia:

[25:51] That's a simple way to put it, but it really is true.

Sophia Perez:

[25:52] Yeah. And it'd be nice if they changed their techniques before they spoil a bunch of completely untouched and beautiful islands, 'cause, like I said, they're eventually going to have to, even if they got every piece of land they ever wanted. They'd have to stop at some point. They should just stop now.

Alternative Zero Coalition

Daniel Forkner:

[26:10] So what are some ways, Sophia, that people on the ground are resisting the advance of the U.S. military with these plans? Can you tell us what the Alternative Zero Coalition is?

Sophia Perez:

[26:19] Sure. So before the military came forward with these plans, there were already activist groups in the Marianas, and so what they did is they all combined under the Alternative Zero Coalition. "Alternative Zero" is a reference to the National Environmental Policy Act, which is the law that forced the military to tell everyone what they're planning to do. So while the military, at least in the activists' view, has as violated NEPA in several different ways, they did create a big environmental impact statement that was supposed to lay out everything that would happen if they created these training ranges, and part of that EIS is to create different alternatives to what they could do that would maybe have, like, a less intense environmental impact or just a different environmental impact, and what the activists were really upset to find is that all of the alternatives were basically the same. They all involved huge amounts of destruction to the islands. None of them considered maybe moving the Marines to Australia or to California or Hawaii or places where there's already training ranges available for them, and so what they did is they created their own alternative, which they call Alternative Zero, and that is the use of the natural resources of the Marianas wisely, used for productive purposes that help both the land and the people of the Marianas.

Daniel Forkner:

[27:35] So the NEPA, that's the National Environmental Policy Act...

Sophia Perez:

[27:38] Mm-hmm.

Daniel Forkner:

[27:39] Which tries to dictate what the military can do when it involves some kind of altering of the environmental landscape. Is that right?

NEPA

Sophia Perez:

[27:46] Not quite. NEPA's really confusing. NEPA decrees that if a federal agency wants to take an executive action that's gonna have a significant effect on the human environment, which is, like, the natural or the cultural aspect of a place, then it must disclose in, like, a very thorough way, all of the things its executive action are going to do to that environment for the people of that area to know and to respond to, and if they don't agree with the actions gonna be taken, then they have everything they need to potentially sue or just take the battle into the political realm, whatever they want to do, but they need to know about it in order to fight it, so that's the aspect is, like, the democratic process that NEPA tries to maintain when an agency's trying to take an executive action. So the Alternative Zero was, I guess, one of the biggest things they had to do was explain NEPA to the people of the Marianas and guide them through the NEPA process, because what the military tries to do when, you know, technically they're supposed to inform everyone, but what they did was just create a 1,500-page document outlining what they were going to do in very confusing technical language, and then say, "All right, everyone in the Marianas, you have 30 days to read this and to respond with questions and comments." It was just...unfathomable.

David Torcivia:

[29:05] The military apparently is good at battling through bureaucracy as well.

Sophia Perez:

[29:09] Yeah, and luckily, what the Alternative Zero activists figured out was that part of the NEPA process is that the agency--in this case, the U.S. Navy--has to make a draft environmental impact statement. Then they have to hold a public hearing, and then based on the conversation that happens at that public hearing, they need to then go back and create their final environmental impact statement, and if people come to the public hearing and ask questions, then those questions must then be addressed in the final environmental impact statement. So normally when they have these public hearings, no one even hears about it. Nobody shows up. What the Alternative Zero activists managed to do was, through online petitions and through just, like, announcing that this hearing was happening on the radio, letter-writing campaigns, whatever--the military expected no one to show up at this hearing. They ended up getting hit with 30,000 questions.

David Torcivia:

[29:58] Wow.

Sophia Perez:

[29:59] So they revoked the whole draft environmental impact statement.

Daniel Forkner:

[30:01] That's amazing.

Sophia Perez:

[30:02] Yeah. They had to completely start from scratch.

David Torcivia:

[30:05] It's inspiring, actually, I would say, really.

Sophia Perez:

[30:06] Yeah.

David Torcivia:

[30:07] Even beyond amazing.

Sophia Perez:

[30:09] It's a great story. You know, it's a David-and-Goliath battle between these two people--you know, or these two forces. But there's been some Hail Marys that have really worked out in the indigenous people's favor, and a lot of them believe that their islands and their ancestors are helping them, so there's a political aspect, there's the grassroots aspect, and there's the legal aspect, right?

Resistance

[30:32] So once the Alternative Zero coalition activists, once they were able to get the community involved with these 30,000 questions, the politicians looked and said, "Okay, there's no way we can give up the islands." You know, maybe they would have, like, gotten bribed or something. But they said "no" to the U.S. government. The last thing was the legal realm, right? And there wasn't really anyone that understood how to navigate NEPA and what to expect and what the military was supposed to do and how they, like, made the information accessible to the indigenous people.

David Torcivia:

[31:01] Is that something that would occur in the courts in the CNMI or in the United States proper?

Sophia Perez:

[31:07] So they actually--there was recently a lawsuit, and they were able to get representation from this amazing Earthjustice lawyer, David Henkin, and he battled against the Navy in Northern Mariana Islands District Court. They just lost, unfortunately, in September, but--early August, actually--but they just filed for an appeal in the 9th circuit, so that's gonna be heard in California.

David Torcivia:

[31:28] Okay.

Sophia Perez:

[31:29] Right, so it kind of goes back and forth, I guess, as you go up the ladder, but in the legal realm, what they found, and what David Henkin was able to uncover, particularly through forcing the military to give up its administrative record for when it was planning all these training ranges, which it's like a--it goes back almost 20 years--is that the Guam relocation of the Marines basically made these training ranges necessary, so when they did their first EIS for the Guam relocation, the Navy should have mentioned, if you're gonna move all these Marines here and they're gonna be active members of the Navy, they need to be trained, and there was no explanation of how they were going to be trained. But the Marines--and in this administrative record, you can see it--the Marines are saying, "We need training ranges. We need to create these ranges on Tinian, on Pagan." They're specifically laying out everything. And it wasn't mentioned in the Guam relocation EIS, and it had to be, 'cause they're intrinsically related. And so that's what the lawsuit is about. It's also about the lack of alternatives, like I mentioned earlier. So the Navy has kind of just sort of been ramming these plans through, just ignoring the NEPA process in the process, and that's kind of what the lawsuit is attempting to hold them accountable for.

Daniel Forkner:

[32:40] Well, I'm curious. It sounds like, at the very least, this ongoing litigation has at least stalled the military's plans, but is litigation gonna be the ultimate source of resistance, or is there other routes that activists are taking to find a more permanent long-term solution--maybe, like, political...

Sophia Perez:

[32:57] Right. Yeah. Maybe it would have to be political, at least in terms of the NEPA process. NEPA doesn't tell the government what they have to do. It just tells them how they have to tell people what they're going to do. So even if they say, "Okay, we're gonna unleash all of this cancerous dust into your environment," and the people say, "We'd really rather you wouldn't," they can say, "Well, we're going to," and then it becomes a political battle, because they were informed. That's all that NEPA does, is you have to be informed. So at that point, it's gonna become a really interesting legal issue, because the Senate could potentially say, "Well, we want to take this land through eminent domain," but then, according to the CNMI Covenant, any land taken by the Navy has to be returned in the same way, so then it becomes an interpretation of the Covenant, potentially, and unfortunately, I don't think the signers really saw this coming, but any time the Covenant needs to be interpreted, it's interpreted in U.S. federal court, right? And so that's where it becomes very sketchy, and unfortunately a lot of the freedoms that were negotiated very strongly for in the '70s have been chipped away by judges who either don't understand or don't care about, like, what this treaty was supposed to mean.

David Torcivia:

[34:12] Well, I think ancillary to that, is there a movement for independence in the Northern Marianas, or, on the other side, statehood?

Sophia Perez:

[34:21] You know, there kind of isn't. The people want to be freely associated. It's worked out decently so far, but it is, in more recent years, that this chipping away thing has actually happened. You know, I think that if it became an issue where potentially they would lose their islands, that question might be revisited, but that would be a serious, like, ramping up of the tension. You know, like, the thing is about Chamorro people, like, they're proud Americans. You know, they want to be part of the American family. And, in fact, the enlistment rates in the Marianas are, like, the highest of anywhere. They're part of the military. It's this particular land use plan that they take issue with, but they are in no way anti-military, and in fact, that was part of the challenge of getting people to rise up against this land use plan, is because they are so patriotic.

David Torcivia:

[35:12] That's really interesting. It makes it almost a worse betrayal, it seems like.

Sophia Perez:

[35:16] Sure. It's really ironic, you know? And it's really a shame, because they want to be happy U.S. citizens. Just don't blow up their homeland.

David Torcivia:

[35:27] I think that's the least we all ask.

Sophia Perez:

[35:28] Yeah.

Daniel Forkner:

[35:30] To bring it back to the human element here, Sophia...

Sophia Perez:

[35:33] Mm-hmm.

Daniel Forkner:

[35:33] When you spoke with Genevieve Cabrera...

Sophia Perez:

[35:35] Mm-hmm.

What Can We Learn From The Marianas?

Daniel Forkner:

[35:36] She compared the loss of these islands to losing a loved one, and that it would be a loss of identity and heritage, and Rosemond Santos describes visiting Pagan as going back in time, and leaving the island for her was like departing from her mother.

Sophia Perez:

[35:52] Right.

Daniel Forkner:

[35:52] And I was reading a book recently by Bernie Krause, who's an acoustic engineer who studies natural landscapes, and he describes how, in the '50s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used a dam to restrict the flow of the Columbia River in Northwestern United States, which resulted in submerging a waterfall that was sacred to an indigenous Native American tribe there.

Sophia Perez:

[36:14] Mm-hmm.

Daniel Forkner:

[36:14] And their entire community had revolved around this waterfall, and after it was lost, one tribe member said, quote, "It was a place revered as one's own mother. I now live with the absence and silence of the falls much as an orphan lives hearing of the kindness and greatness of her mother," end quote. And so I think this metaphor of comparing the loss of a place that you consider home as losing a mother, which seems--it seems so common among people who connect with place in this way.

David Torcivia:

[36:44] People who strongly identify culturally with a place, which I think, for lot of Americans and a lot of Westerners, we don't so much identify with a place, but maybe larger ideas of, "This is a nation, and I'm from this person," but a direct appreciation of the land or the larger spiritual significance that that holds is something that's foreign to many of us.

Daniel Forkner:

[37:04] Yeah, exactly, and that's kind of my point, is that this concept seems so foreign to us in Western society, yet we approach situations like this and other communities so often we bring our own arrogance, our own ideas, we feel that we have the superior solutions, and so my question is what can we learn from the Northern Marianas and the people that live there? What do they have to teach us? You know, because we're not the ones that always have the solutions, and we need to do a better job of listening and learning to other people. I mean...

Sophia Perez:

[37:32] Sure. I mean, and that's a super deep question, but I'll try to approach it.

David Torcivia:

[37:37] Take your time.

Sophia Perez:

[37:40] I think that--I've heard that question phrased--I've heard it come out of a few different people's mouths, and a lot of times, they seem to be asking for knowledge. You know, the knowledge of an indigenous culture. But I think that what indigenous culture, and particularly the Chamorros, since they've been living on these islands for 4,000 years, since 400 years of colonialism has not stamped out their culture, though it has changed it, Chamorros are still very much Chamorros, you know? And their language lives on, and a lot of their traditions live on. I think the thing to learn from these people is their values, is the way that they ground themselves, and it's very much a culture where you respect your elders, it's a culture of reciprocity, of generosity, of keeping track of your family tree and of knowing your family name and finding cousins and aunties everywhere. You know, I think that--I mean, literally, you can't walk past people having a barbecue without them being like, "Come to our barbecue," you know? They'll come over with a fiesta plate and just have you sit down and talk to them. It's a very distinct approach that, you know, when I moved there, I had been living in Brooklyn before, and it took a minute to adjust to, I will say, but I couldn't respect it more, because when you live in a culture of respect and of knowing how you relate to all of the people on your little island and knowing that your ancestors have been in this place for a long time, and, in the Chamorro viewpoint, their ancestors are still very much taking part in daily life. You have to ask permission from your ancestors before you enter the forest or before, if you're pulling up to the shore of an island, especially Pagan, you need to ask permission before you land on the sand. [39:35] It's a way of approaching things where you always respect the presence of other people in the way that you're connected with them, and I think that that--it might be part of how they have been able to maintain a sustainable civilization for so long. This Western alienation, it's starting to kind of bleed through through the internet, but, like, really, the Chamorro culture is very much alive, and it's one of seeing family everywhere you go, and that keeps people honest, and it keeps people accountable.

Daniel Forkner:

[40:06] Yeah, I think that's really beautiful. It just occurred to me as you were describing that, even despite my question, you know, I had never really thought before, like, what it would feel like to look at a forest or a group of trees and say, "Yeah, my great-great-great-grandfather approached these trees, and the great-great-grandfather of my neighbor and my friend and my wife and my family and all these things were all connected to this place," and you said "alienation," and I think that's such great word. Maybe that's why it's so easy for us to destroy the environment when we have no connection to it that spans generations.

David Torcivia:

[40:40] Yeah, and we no longer see it as an extension of our own personal history, and instead as a resource.

Sophia Perez:

[40:48] Exactly. People see themselves in the land. People see their families in the land. And I think maybe that might be a big difference.

David Torcivia:

[40:55] Yeah, and in that context, I mean, the bombing of this island is a direct assault on these people...

Sophia Perez:

[41:00] Yeah**

David Torcivia:

[41:00] And on their their family lineages, especially--I think you mentioned there are quite literally burial grounds...

Sophia Perez:

[41:06] Absolutely.

David Torcivia:

[41:06] In this area, but even beyond that, the land itself is part of that family.

Daniel Forkner:

[41:12] One more question from me: you mentioned earlier, Sophia, the absurdity of bombing islands. Like, we don't have an infinite supply of islands, and so even if the Alternative Zero Coalition is successful and can repel the U.S. military from bombing Pagan and Tinian, it's likely that the military would find another island to bomb...

Sophia Perez:

[41:31] Yeah, it's very possible.

Daniel Forkner:

[41:32] Or at least try to.

Sophia Perez:

[41:33] Yeah.

Daniel Forkner:

[41:33] So is it important to connect the struggle to perhaps a broader movement to end the military's long habitual practice of just eradicating islands? Is that something we can do and should strive to do?

Sophia Perez:

[41:46] Absolutely, and there are efforts to sort of create a tie between the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam and other islands in the Pacific who are struggling against the same thing. The entire Pacific is basically facing the threat of military buildup, you know, particularly as tensions rise between--you know, there's China, there's North Korea, there's the U.S., and there's a whole South China Sea controversy that's happening right now, and what the island nations are finding--and, you know, so many are still reeling from colonialism, but there are a lot of independent states now--and I think it's something like, if they all voted together, these island nations would have, like, 15 votes in the UN or something like that. There's potential for these Pacific Islanders and--or however they identify--to band together, and in fact, I think that's probably the only way they have any shot at defending their cultures and their families from being sort of usurped by the militaries of superpowers.

How Can We Help?

David Torcivia:

[42:43] To piggyback off that question, for those of us who aren't from these Pacific Islands, who are members of the states doing this violence against them, what is it that the rest of us can do to sort of help in this struggle?

Sophia Perez:

[42:57] Well, I know that, like I said, you know, these miles and miles of the Pacific, they sort of create a vacuum, or they make it possible for, at least on the U.S. mainland, for politicians to be unaccountable, and so one thing--like, thank you so much for having me on the podcast, because it helps to bring this story to the mainland, and it's not just--I don't know, "spread awareness" has become such an empty term, but really, if you look at the history, if you look at Vieques in Puerto Rico, it was after the mainland found out that the military left in 2003. If you look at, when there were still trust territories and the U.S. was sort of trying to to just annex places as modern colonies, as opposed to letting them be free-associated states, which is to say they have a bilateral agreement to join the U.S. family, so they were considering taking--I believe it was Palau--and they wanted to turn them into a colony, and a bunch of Micronesian students staged a hunger strike, and everyone on the mainland found out about it, 'cause it was severe, and the U.S. backed off. So it's not a very difficult controversy. It's, like, really they just shouldn't blow up islands for no reason. And it's very easy to decide what the right thing to do is here. [44:09] So when politicians are held accountable for these plans, they back off, 'cause they look freaking evil, you know?

Daniel Forkner:

[44:17] Right.

Sophia Perez:

[44:17] So...

David Torcivia:

[44:17] Yeah.

Sophia Perez:

[44:18] Just writing about it or, like, sharing this podcast or anything that helps people know about it, that really is super powerful and has always been.

Daniel Forkner:

[44:28] When you put it in that perspective, awareness is actually super important, because it's totally an indefensible, you know, position.

David Torcivia:

[44:34] Yeah.

Sophia Perez:

[44:34] Yeah.

David Torcivia:

[44:35] No one can defend bombing islands.

Sophia Perez:

[44:38] Yeah, and just basically destroying an indigenous culture. It's just--is really reprehensible.

David Torcivia:

[44:45] Yeah.

Daniel Forkner:

[44:46] Is the Alternative Zero Coalition taking donations? Do they have a website we can put on our web page for people to check out?

Sophia Perez:

[44:53] So, like, I said, the appeal is--I think they filed for an appeal in late September, and then they're gonna hear it--the hearing's on December 21st, so Earthjustice does offer free legal counsel, but associated fees, like travel and stuff, are not offered, and the Alternative Zero Coalition does have to pay for that, so donations would be super welcome. At the moment, honestly, that's basically the only thing that's taking donations right now, but it would be super helpful, because we have to fly this guy all around. And other than that, like I said, just spreading the word and talking about it, writing articles--all of that is so, so helpful for the cause.

David Torcivia:

[45:32] Do you have anything you want to plug personally?

Sophia Perez:

[45:35] Well, I do have a podcast.

David Torcivia:

[45:37] Well, we'll put a link for it.

Sophia Perez:

[45:38] Yeah, so basically my podcast is just a series of interviews with all the different activists and major players in this fight, and they share what they've been doing to resist the military and how they stay sane and why they do what they do, and it's just been a constant source of inspiration for me to talk to these people, so it might be worth a listen.

David Torcivia:

[46:01] It definitely is. Do you have anything else you want to--just, like, things we missed or something else you want to say?

Colonialism Is Not Over

Sophia Perez:

[46:07] You know, the only thing that comes to mind is basically colonialism is not over. The exploitation of indigenous people is not over. If at any point you learned in school, or just, like, in your own reading about the genocide of the Native Americans, and you thought, "How could that have happened? How could people have just sat by while this clear injustice was happening?" it's still happening, and that combination of ignorance, of complacency, of racism on the part of the people who are actually exploiting these people, it's all completely still happening, and in this era where information can travel much easier, we're all more responsible for being complacent, because we had a way easier way of knowing about it and of being active about it, so there's a lot of old wounds to be healed and old wrongs to be righted, and I think this is one of them.

Daniel Forkner:

[47:03] Well put. Sophia, thank you so much for coming on, and thank you for the work you're doing to bring awareness to this very important issue.

Sophia Perez:

[47:11] Thank you so much for having me.

David Torcivia:

[47:13] We really appreciate it.

Daniel Forkner:

[47:14] That interview with Sophia Perez was a condensed version. You can find the full interview on our SoundCloud page at "ashesashescast." In addition, you can find links to Sophia's podcast as well as the organization which might soon be taking donations on our web page. If you would like to contact Sophia, her email address is SophiaPerez8@gmail.com.

David Torcivia:

[47:40] This is such an important story right here, because this gives us the chance to step in and actually prevent some of the environmental catastrophes that we've been talking about in this episode and that we'll continue to cover in the next section of the show. We have a moment here, a place that we can stop and say, you know, this is wrong. We shouldn't be destroying these people's homes; we shouldn't be destroying these very sacred, precious natural landscapes that have an important cultural heritage to the people of the CNMI; and it's our duty as Americans to curtail the damaging actions of our military. And, I mean, that idea extends well beyond these environmental catastrophes that are occurring into the actions of the military as a whole, but when we have a chance to say something and do something, we need to take that, especially when these are Americans themselves being forced out of their land.

Daniel Forkner:

[48:25] One thing that really stood out to me, David, is a couple things that Sophia said about culture. She mentioned that colonialism isn't dead, and the way that we treat the people on the Marianas has, in some way, eroded their cultural identity, and she interviewed someone on her podcast--again, we'll link to it on the website, and everyone should check it out--and this person said that the people of the Marianas are tired of colonialization, which has been ongoing for centuries. They're tired of it, and they want their culture back. And it occurred to me, I think this has a lot of similarities in the episode we did, number 34, "Irreplaceable," because that episode is about loss. We talked about the loss of biodiversity and how tragic that loss is, because the diversity of species in our world is not just something pleasant to be a part of. It represents information and knowledge that has accrued over millions of years, knowledge that can potentially give us answers to a way to move forward in a failing world, and I see very similar parallels going on with the way that we disregard the value of cultural variety around the world--that cultures themselves represent people, ideas, language, ways of living that have been passed down for generations, that have accrued over thousands of years, and which could also inform ways that we should live, but yet we try to turn the whole world into something that will conform under one system: one public school system, one finance system, and in this process, we lose all this information. I mean, just one example, because it's impossible to predict all the ways that we lose when we lose culture, but Polynesians historically may have been some of the greatest navigators of all time. Not only could they navigate by the stars and the sun, but according to some reports, competent navigators could close their eyes on canoes in open waters and tell where they were just by the rhythm of the waves that rocked against their boats. But a lot of this knowledge was lost upon colonization. For one, the Spanish at one point outlawed locals from building canoes and carrying out navigation. And I feel weird even bringing this up, but maybe for anyone out there who wants to question why we even need to preserve cultures, like, beyond just the aesthetic or the human value of that, there are real benefits to having diversity around the world that are impossible to predict and can't be quantified in numbers and models.

David Torcivia:

[50:54] But of course, Daniel, these tragedies don't occur just in far-off places, but right here at home in the United States. I think it would surprise many people to learn that the U.S. military has been waging a war of sorts here domestically against unfortunately, our environment.

Domestic Damage

Daniel Forkner:

[51:10] The U.S. Navy, David, used one of Hawaii's eight main islands as a bombing range for 50 years up until 1993. They tested torpedoes by firing them at island cliffs and fired ship-to-land missiles at coastlines. The Navy abandoned the island in 2004 after an unfinished cleanup job that left 25% of the surface and 67% of the ground beneath the surface still inundated with unexploded bombs, shrapnel, grenades, and other remains of their activities. The island's loss of vegetation and natural species contributes to the erosion of almost 2 million tons of soil every year. In 2015, 500 environmental scientists called on the U.S. government to make a serious effort to restore the island, but that restoration continues to rely on volunteers.

David Torcivia:

[51:58] Hawaii doesn't really have a lot of islands, and the islands that it does have are so valuable. This is such incredibly valuable real estate. It's really incredible that we just turned one into target practice for five decades and then just abandoned it because, "Oops, we destroyed it. This place is useless." And because of this, it's really easy to see why people in the CNMI and other places are so impassioned in defending their land. But as bad as that is, Daniel, I've got something even worse. After World War II, okay, we still had these large stockpiles of bombs and other munitions that we just didn't need anymore, and you have to do something with it. It's expensive to store. It's expensive to decommission. So, I mean, what did we do? Well, we took the American way, which, of course, is find the cheapest, easiest thing to get these things out of our sight, and so we dumped them. We dumped them in the Gulf of Mexico. Between 1946 and 1970, over 31 million pounds of explosives were dumped into the Gulf. Like, we just loaded them onto ships, drove the ship into the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, and just pushed these things over the edge. Problem solved. Good job, everybody. We're done. [53:05] Everything from 1,000-pound bombs and landmines to even crazy chemical weapons like mustard gas canisters. To this day, we still don't know how many bombs are down there, or even where they all are. In 2005, a few fishermen were killed when they caught one of these bombs in their net. And, I mean, besides the danger to fishermen and oil workers, in fact, when the Deepwater Horizon spill happened, many environmental scientists thought it was, "Oops," they had accidentally struck a bomb, and that's what caused the blowout. And eventually it was revealed that that wasn't the case, but it's a very real problem for these oil platforms, of which there are many in the Gulf. And beyond that, beyond the bombs and the mines that we've dropped down there, a huge risk is that these chemical weapons will leak, and, of course, they will leak at some point from this prolonged exposure from this very corrosive ocean water.

Daniel Forkner:

[53:55] Well, David, I think it's adorable that you tried to one-up me with an example that came right after World War II, because back then, we really didn't know much about the world, and it's understandable, I think, to a certain extent, that we simply didn't know...

David Torcivia:

[54:10] Yeah, like, who could have ever guessed that just dropping tens of millions of bombs and chemical weapons into water would, like, ever come back and bite them in the ass? Like, nobody could have known. That's...

Daniel Forkner:

[54:22] No, but...

David Torcivia:

[54:24] It's a simple mistake to make.

Daniel Forkner:

[54:25] David, you have to understand, the ocean is a very large place, and back then, it was even larger. I mean, I can see someone thinking that we could just dump something in the ocean and, you know, what are the chances that it would come back to bite us? I mean, this was before plastics, even. There was no great garbage Pacific patch of plastic just swirling around in the ocean. There were no microplastics getting into our drinking water.

David Torcivia:

[54:47] Well, before the mass production of plastic, anyway, but yeah.

Daniel Forkner:

[54:50] Right. So let me give you one better, because to this day, right now, as long as we're talking about disposing of military equipment in just the lowest-cost, least-effort ways, how about just dousing it in fuel and setting it on fire?

Open Burn Pits

David Torcivia:

[55:04] That sounds like the most American thing I've ever heard.

Daniel Forkner:

[55:07] That's right, David. In Virginia, the Radford Army Ammunition Plant is the U.S. military's largest manufacturer of propellants and explosive, supplying everything from artillery shells, Apache machine gun rounds, to rifle bullets, and every day, the plant douses these old shells, explosive, bullets, and chemicals with fluid and sets them on fire. And we're not talking about chump change here, David. This plant alone produces over 50% of all the propellants that the military uses worldwide. And this isn't exclusive to this Radford plant. There are close to 200 sites across the country where this type of open burning has occurred on military bases and by our military contractors, and today, we operate about 51 sites around the country where this is ongoing and a daily practice. And the amount of toxins that are being released by this Radford plant into the environment is pretty staggering. Between 2014 and 2015, a total of 10 million pounds of toxic material was released into the air and environment, including 8,400 pounds of lead. But Radford is not alone here. An ammunition plant in Indiana burned 10 million pounds of munitions in 2016, and an Army base in Oklahoma burned or detonated 14 million pounds. This is still the preferred way that the U.S. military, in our country, gets rid of and disposes its hazardous waste and spent munitions.

David Torcivia:

[56:34] "But David, Daniel," our very smart listener says, like, "how else are you supposed to get rid of all this toxic waste?"

Daniel Forkner:

[56:41] The astute listener.

David Torcivia:

[56:43] I mean, if we had to choose between just burning this stuff and releasing it into the atmosphere or dumping it in the ocean, I mean, I guess burning is maybe the better option there, because, you know, it'll dissipate, and maybe some of that will fall into the ocean, some of it will fall on the land, some goes in the atmosphere, and it's gone. We don't have to worry about it anymore, right? Well, I say to you, the uninformed listener, there are, in fact, a number of extremely safe, well-tested ways of disposing these toxic materials. In Germany, they pioneered a system that uses high-pressure water jets to safely separate these materials and allow for simple and efficient decommissioning. In other countries, ultra-high-temperature furnaces that burn in closed-off areas allow them to essentially vaporize all these products without emitting any toxic air. [57:29] These solutions exist--they're all around the world--but they're too expensive, and the military is hesitant to invest in them, and instead we get this open pit burn process, which, as you expect, is extremely toxic. The EPA itself estimates that each of these open burn sites are accruing environmental costs that could amount to a $500 million cleanup cost per site. And to be clear, there are 51 of these open burn sites currently active, and that doesn't even include all the ones that have been decommissioned, and some of which we still don't know about. There's several on the islands that we talked about in Hawaii that the U.S. military will not admit that they were open burn pits, though the evidence is very ample that, in fact, they were. At the Redstone Arsenal, an Army experimental weapons test and burn site in Huntsville, Alabama, perchlorate--a toxic chemical used in propellants that can cause things like hyperthyroid disease, lung cancer, and other problems--has been measured in the soil at rates 7,000 times over the safe limits. In Nebraska at the Cornhusker Army Ammunition Plant, the burning and release of toxins into the air travels 20 miles away and find its way from there into the underground drinking water that then poisons residents. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The military itself acknowledges that over 39,000 locations in the U.S. have been contaminated by their actions, and the EPA estimates that the total contaminated land is over 40 million acres.

Daniel Forkner:

[58:53] David, I looked this up. I mean, one of the articles expressing this described 40 million acres as being close to the size of Florida. But I wanted to see how many U.S. states actually fall under this 40 million acres, and there are 27 American states that do not amount to 40 million acres. This is an enormous chunk of land that is, I guess, just totally unusable, unless you want to get cancer.

David Torcivia:

[59:23] To put that in perspective even more, Daniel, if you're looking at just how much land the U.S. military has made toxic, contaminated, and otherwise useless in the contiguous United States alone, well, it's 2% of this entire country. In addition, of the 1,300 Superfund sites in the U.S., that is the most polluted lands we have anywhere. Well, over 70% of them are former defense properties. And actually, Daniel, one of them is just a couple blocks away from me right now here as I sit in New York.

Daniel Forkner:

[59:52] Oh, really, David?

David Torcivia:

[59:53] Yeah, there's this Superfund site just down the road from me that is the most radioactive place in all of New York.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:00:01] Oh.

David Torcivia:

[1:00:02] It's a site where they processed rare earth elements and got a lot of the radioactive material used in the building of the atom bomb in the Manhattan Project, and they would take this thorium and other sludge that they were taking out and were finding at this site and just flush it down the sewer. And so even now, just this whole street, the entire sewer line is just filled with radiation and other toxic materials, and actually, right on top of this property now, so the EPA came in, they built these huge lead and steel plates that they laid down, they ripped off all the ground, put these giant thick lead plates everywhere and then put concrete over that, so they say it's safe from the radiation, but right above this land, actually, there is the largest ice production company in the world located here shipping ice all over the country, so...

Daniel Forkner:

[1:00:50] Wait, we ship ice around the country? My freezer just kind of makes it automatically.

David Torcivia:

[1:00:55] Well we don't all have fancy future refrigerators. Some of us don't have a choice with the refrigerator our landlord gives us.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:01:03] David, I'm worried about you. I mean, before we started this show, you said you felt like you had a little bit of a cold. Do you think it could be related to this...

David Torcivia:

[1:01:10] I don't know.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:01:11] Radiation that's just going down the sewage underneath your...

David Torcivia:

[1:01:15] Well, I think I'm pretty safe here. I actually, if we're listing out my list of meters that I have around...

Daniel Forkner:

[1:01:21] Do you have--yeah, do you have a sensor in your room to measure...

David Torcivia:

[1:01:24] I do actually have a dosimeter outside my window.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:01:27] Get out of here.

David Torcivia:

[1:01:27] I do. It's an automated air quality sensor. A really cool group of people--it's called the Rad Meter, and it tests for variety of air sensors and publishes it automatically to a global citizen science initiative, and one of the things it tests for is radiation, and I am looking pretty good, but...

Daniel Forkner:

[1:01:45] All right.

David Torcivia:

[1:01:45] If my sperm count starts dropping, I'll be sure that you're the first to know, Daniel.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:01:51] Please keep me informed.

David Torcivia:

[1:01:53] I know that's an important topic for you.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:01:54] But David, I want to come back for a second to this open pit burning the goes on around the country, 'cause why is this going on? You mentioned that other countries have developed safe alternatives to disposing of this type of waste, and you did mention that it's very expensive to do that, but we need to acknowledge here that this isn't normal. This isn't a normal practice by any stretch. 30 years ago, Congress banned this practice among private companies, and so businesses all over the nation had to install these tech-savvy incinerators, smokestacks, filters, and then adhere to strict regulations on the emitting of certain toxins. But the Pentagon was given an exemption, and it was supposed to be temporary, but it continues to this day.

David Torcivia:

[1:02:38] In fact, many of these burn sites are just operating on these, like, temporary assumed permits because their permits have expired or the exemptions haven't been passed, and so they're just burning anyway, but nobody steps in, and nobody--there's no punishment. There's no recourse for when they burn illegally or they burn too much or they burn at the wrong days, at the wrong times, or whatever. There's literally no oversight except somebody just saying, "Oh, yeah, what you did here is wrong, but okay." There's no punishment that occurs.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:03:05] Right. In the past 37 years, military burn sites around the country have violated hazardous waste permits thousands of times for everything from failing to measure and test levels of pollution to polluting more than allowed. So despite the fact that this is a legal and outdated practice, they're still violating the very loose permits that they have.

David Torcivia:

[1:03:26] And even beyond that, Daniel, even this lack of punishment that occurs, there's really no oversight at all. Everything is based on the honor system that these companies--companies like BAE Systems or the military itself--is just being honest with the reports of what they burned and when, and sometimes these logs go missing. There's been times when nobody made logs for two months, even though the burns were occurring. Then the oversight on the other side is, you know, the EPA's supposed to be stepping in and making sure that this practice is safe and environmentally responsible, something that they claim it is, that the military also backs up and says, "We're being very safe," but in fact, there's just no measurements being done. They don't test the air quality. They don't test the soil quality or the water quality, except in a couple scenarios which have just happened very recently, and even then, when they find concerning results in these tests, nothing is done.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:04:14] Right, and going back to that Radford plant in Virginia, there have been tons of violations that have occurred there--everything from illegal river dumping, failing to report the amount that they burned, improper disposal, and what I think is especially sad is that, because this plant is the largest employer in the area, local residents, they don't want to speak out or challenge the plant in any way for fear of losing their jobs, or, you know, if the plant had to be shut down, they would all lose their jobs, and...

The Military, Trust, And Health

[1:04:40] At the same time, many people in this area have a sense of duty and loyalty to the U.S. military, which has a lot of trust with the community to protect the community's health, and so in light of this, I think, you know, we have to ask the question, is this trust well-founded?

David Torcivia:

[1:04:57] Daniel, I know you know what's coming next, but unfortunately the U.S. military has a history of exposing soldiers, Marines, and even residents to biological health hazards only to turn a blind eye when these veterans and civilians alike request help. An Air Force base in Colorado has been contaminating drinking water with firefighting foam, which contains known toxins extremely dangerous to human health, and which have been recorded in local water at levels 1,250 times higher than what the EPA considers safe. The Colorado districts surrounding the base have already spent $6 million addressing this contamination, which is expected to more than double by the end of this year, and the Air Force has largely said it's not responsible. Quote, "We don't back pay. The Air Force does not have the authority to reimburse communities for costs incurred in dealing with environmental contamination issues," end quote. So the town's only recourse will likely be to raise taxes and water prices.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:05:55] Well, I want to come back to these open burn pits one more time, David, because there's a more relevant example that might inform us about the military's willingness to take responsibility for the consequences of these practices, and that comes from Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. private contractors like Halliburton profited billions of dollars in contracts and cost-cutting initiatives that jeopardized the health of Marines and soldiers. One of these cost-cutting ideas was to skimp on proper incinerators and disposal plants that would be used to dispose of all the waste being generated by the perpetual war in those areas, and instead, these contractors opted to dispose of massive amounts of toxic waste by burning everything from lithium batteries, pesticides, medical waste, metals, corpses even, asbestos, and much more in open pits just meters from the barracks where soldiers slept. And as a result, thousands of U.S. war veterans have cancers, respiratory illness, and other health problems that they're asking help for, and the military is doing very little to respond.

David Torcivia:

[1:07:01] It took 27 years for veterans of the Vietnam War to receive even recognition for the health impacts of Agent Orange exposure. We dropped something like 20 million gallons of chemicals on Vietnam over a ten-year period, the majority of which was Agent Orange, infamous for its links to cancer, birth defects, psychological and neurological disease, immune system disruption, and a myriad of hormone problems. Some 2.8 million Americans were exposed to it while stationed in Vietnam, not to mention the over 5 million Vietnamese at the time and whose families and children continue to be affected negatively by this chemical, which lingers in their environment to this day. Look, I mean, this episode is already getting long because of that really important interview we did earlier, because this is something that we can step in and do something about right now, but the fact of the matter is, in places like Vietnam, in places like the Philippines, in the Middle East right now, there are countless people who are sick, who have cancer, who have thyroid problems, who have lung problems, who have birth defects, and many more diseases because of the actions of the U.S. military. The perpetual wars that we've been involved with for the past 70 years continue to impact the populations. Long after the planes stop flying and a troops go home, the environmental damage continues. These toxins that these unexploded ordnance leak into water tables, the countless gallons of chemical agents find their way into the food chains and ultimately to people, unexploded bombs continue to fulfill their final mission and cause death. The legacy of our endless military actions is a world destroyed, land unsafe for people to live on even after it's been allegedly liberated, after wars fought to return people to their homes.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:08:47] Or turned into a wildlife refuge, David.

David Torcivia:

[1:08:50] Yes, Daniel, or in those cases where land is supposed to be returned to its natural state, but all the while is filled with unexploded bombs. We are just scratching the surface here. These stories are endless. We have so many of them linked on our website. We really encourage you to go out and read this, because this is an important part of war, and one we rarely think about. When we discuss war, it's so often conversations about the troops, the costs of our budgets, the direct impacts of our bombs and missiles, the collateral damage, as the military likes to call it, but really, the civilians caught in between the soldier and the destination of his bullet, gun, or rocket.

Perpetual War

Daniel Forkner:

[1:09:22] Let me mention real quick, David, this show isn't about the military industrial complex, but...

David Torcivia:

[1:09:26] The one is coming.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:09:28] Right, but to piggyback off what you just said, the United States military, we drop a bomb every 12 minutes, and this is a part of a trend that has been rapidly intensifying over the past couple decades. George W. Bush's administration dropped 70,000 bombs while he was in office, while Obama dropped 100,000, which comes out to about 34 bombs each day while he was in office, and during President Trump's first year, the average number of bombs dropped jumped to 120 each day. I think there were over 40,000 in his first year alone. And who are these bombs targeting and killing? While Obama was in office, 90% of all drone strikes killed civilians, and 80% of the people killed by our bombs have never even been identified.

David Torcivia:

[1:10:14] Of course, beyond these bombs dropped by us, so many of the bombs that find their way into countries around the world are developed and sold by American companies, and again, this is getting into that military industrial complex episode, which we will do in the future. It's something we're actively working on. But in the context of this episode, it's just important to remember that outside of these direct combat actions, the damage of the military does not end, whether it's environmental damage from the training, poisoning water tables from their everyday actions, or the legacy of wars fought long in the past that continuously poison the land and the people that live on it for decades to come. And if all that isn't enough, Daniel, the U.S. military is actually the largest single polluter, particularly in carbon dioxide emitted, of any single organization in the entire world. To put it in perspective, almost 2% of all U.S. carbon emissions are from military actions, and, I mean, a lot of this information is classified--it's hard to track down exact numbers--but based solely on the amount of oil the U.S. military purchases every year, we can get that number, and, in fact, it may be much higher when we include the full carbon dioxide equivalents. This is the single largest purchaser of petroleum in the entire world.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:11:24] I think you're right, David, that the carbon equivalence would probably be much higher if you can factor in the oil and other fossil fuels that goes into manufacturing so much of this equipment that might be done by private companies and contractors that don't figure into direct purchase of fuel by the military itself.

David Torcivia:

[1:11:43] Mm-hmm. Exactly. And ironically, a lot of this energy is, in the end, used to defend and extend control of energy, as we all famously know with the many American oil expeditions, as we'll call them.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:11:57] Adventures, David.

“Dude, Where's My Nukes?”

[1:11:58] This is a little bit too heavy for me, so I think it'd be a lot better at this point to just take a look at some of the hilarious ways the military's carelessness has resulted in multiple nuclear warheads being lost around the world.

David Torcivia:

[1:12:13] Wait. Did you just say nuclear warheads lost?

Daniel Forkner:

[1:12:17] Yes, I did, David.

David Torcivia:

[1:12:18] How does one lose a nuke?

Daniel Forkner:

[1:12:22] Okay, well, let me give you one scenario. In 1950, a U.S. bomber flew off from Alaska, and the goal was to transport a 30-kiloton Mark 4 nuclear bomb. You may have heard of the Fat Man from your U.S. history classes. That's what this bomb was. And I think this was part of a training mission in which the bomber was going to simulate the dropping of a bomb on San Francisco. You know, just your standard operation, right, David?

David Torcivia:

[1:12:50] Yeah, of course.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:12:50] Just your standard training protocol.

David Torcivia:

[1:12:52] Yeah. You know.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:12:52] Well, shortly after this plane took off in Alaska, there was an engine fire on board, and to lighten the load, the crew decided to just dump all its weapons into the Pacific Ocean, including this Fat Man nuclear bomb. Shortly after, with no recovery in sight, the crew decided to abandon the plane by jumping out right before it crashed in British Columbia. We didn't find it until, I think, recently a fisherman in Alaska might have found it, although it's important to point out that while this bomb did have uranium and all the nuclear material, it lacked the plutonium core that is necessary to detonate it, so perhaps it wasn't quite as dangerous as it seems, but I still think it's pretty hilarious that we're simulating dropping a nuke on San Francisco using an actual nuclear weapon, and the fact that we couldn't even make it to our theoretical destination. And this isn't an isolated or unique thing, David. This was one of eight nuclear weapons that we lost, so I think there are still seven that we have no idea where they are--just, you know, sitting on the bottom of the ocean somewhere, maybe buried under some soil or something.

David Torcivia:

[1:14:02] I think there's one off the coast of Georgia, actually, so you might want to watch out for that one.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:14:07] I'm starting to feel like I'm getting a cold, David.

David Torcivia:

[1:14:09] Yeah. And if I'm remembering my trivia right, I think that one actually does have the plutonium core in it, so watch out.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:14:17] Well, unlike the undisciplined schoolchildren of today, David, I still perform the under-the-desk nuclear preparation drill that so many people have stopped doing, so I think I'll be fine. I practice that about once a day, twice on Saturday, so I'm really quick. My timing is down to about 1.5 seconds flat. In fact, just the other day, we had a thunderstorm, and there was a lightning strike outside my window. I reflexively dived under my desk in my office, so, yeah, I'll be fine.

What Can We Do?

David Torcivia:

[1:14:49] Well, Daniel, I'm glad you're preparing for the inevitable, which brings us to the end of our show, even though, like I said, we've just scratched the surface. We encourage you to go and read more about all these things online. But in the meantime, maybe we should talk about, what can we do besides duck and cover practice?

Daniel Forkner:

[1:15:06] The struggle that Sophia highlighted for us is very important. It's a struggle to save two islands, to prevent what happened on Hawaii and Vieques and so many other islands from happening on Tinian in Pagan. But we can't just stop at saving these two islands, because, as she pointed out, the U.S. military will just find a different island to bomb, something that we don't have an infinite supply of, and so we should fight to reduce all military bombings and operations around the world, because there's also an irony going on here, that being one of the top polluters in the world and a significant emitter of carbon dioxide, the military is also contributing significantly to sea level rise, which threatens not just every island in the world, but also our coastal cities and homes. And, in a similar vein, there are tons of health risk in the U.S. associated with military manufacturing, testing, and waste disposal, like those open burn pits that we mentioned. [1:16:02] But simply regulating safety and health risks in the U.S. alone won't address the health consequences of military actions around the world, even on U.S. bases like those open burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to address the systemic need for having this giant military where 53¢ of every federal dollar goes to support it, to support these bombings and these trainings. We need to ask the question, "Is this really necessary? Is this what stability, peace, and prosperity in a world looks like: bombing islands off the face of the planet, converting 40 million acres of domestic land into uninhabitable toxic wastelands? Is this what is necessary to have a peaceful world?" I think we should question that. It seems paradoxical to me. But unless we can connect these isolated events to a much broader systemic issue here, we're never going to get to the point where we can say, "You know what? We don't need this presence around the world. We don't need these live firing testings everywhere we go." It is more valuable to preserve culture, it is more valuable to preserve the very limited environments that we have than to test our bombs and our chemical weapon.

David Torcivia:

[1:17:16] Daniel, I mean, maybe we should ask ourselves, what is the point of a military?

What Is The Purpose Of Military?

[1:17:21] Like, if I'm a country, I'm a nation state, and I decide I need a military, 'cause, remember, not every nation state has a military, but say I decide I need one. What, ostensibly, is the purpose of having a military?

Daniel Forkner:

[1:17:32] To prevent someone from bombing me into oblivion, David. To prevent soldiers from marching across my border and shooting my citizens.

David Torcivia:

[1:17:42] Okay, so ostensibly, it's to defend your country, to defend the people that live in the country.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:17:47] Sure.

David Torcivia:

[1:17:47] But how does that mesh when that military is at home poisoning the water of your own nation, of poisoning the civilians it's trying to defend, of bombing and destroying and making useless the land that it is there to defend in the first place? Those are actions, if you ask me, sound like they're from foreign enemy militaries, not from the one that's supposed to be protecting these people in the first place. When we've created a force that exists ostensibly to protect us, but they go around and poison us and damage our health for the primary purpose of defending U.S. foreign interests, which, in the end, are almost always about making somebody a dollar, well, that feels like an attack--feels like an attack on American citizens and American land. We, as Americans, and as citizens of the world, should demand that this ends. When our own military is attacking us, when we're getting a taste of what the rest of the world must deal with constantly, well, maybe we start to realize that we've gone down the wrong path, and it might not be possible to turn back, in which case the only solution is to start over. Don't let these stories get buried. The military is always trying to cover up exactly how much damage it's doing to us here at home, in places like Guam, Philippines, Okinawa, and in places where it soon hopes to be doing that damage, like Pagan. [1:19:06] Make these stories heard. Remind people that the military is not solely an entity that exists in war, but also does damage to all of us in their training and mere existence in peacetime; that the production of things that are designed to kill always ends in damage, whether that's damage to some unfortunate combatant, to some person who'll be labeled collateral damage, or to some civilian who happens to live close to one of these burn pits, or the animals or land or water table that gets ultimately damaged by the toxic runoff from our actions. Only through reminding people of the true nature of our military and what happens because of this oversight, because we've let them for so long get away with these horrible crimes against all of us. Duck And Cover

David Torcivia:

[1:19:54] As always, that's a lot to think about, but think about it we hope you will. We have so much info on our website about this episode. Please come check it. There's many links and stories about the topics we talk about, about some of the stories that just didn't fit in because of the time, as well as information on how you can help make a difference with the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands and the U.S. military's plans to destroy the heritage of the people living there. You can find all of this as well as a full transcript of this episode on our website at ashesashes.org.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:20:26] A lot of time and research goes into making these episodes possible, and we will never use advertising to support this show, so if you like it and would like us to keep going, you, our listener, can support us by giving us a review and recommending us to a friend. Also, we have an email address--it's contact@ashesashes.org--and we encourage you to send us your thoughts, positive or negative. We'll read them, and we appreciate them.

David Torcivia:

[1:20:51] You can also find us on your favorite social media Network at "ashesashescast." Next week, we've got an episode that we're both so excited about. We really hope you'll tune in. But until then, this is Ashes Ashes.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:21:05] Bye.

David Torcivia:

[1:21:06] Bye-bye.