Could bombing benefit Vieques reefs?

Jim_Maragos at Jim_Maragos at
Wed Dec 8 15:44:43 EST 1999

     Thank you for your thoughts, but I feel there may still be some possible
     misconceptions regarding the recent military history at Johnston Atoll, and
     the military's impact on its coral reefs.  Besides serving as an example of
     positive contemporary military stewardship, the early military presence at
     Johnston should also serve as a lesson on how NOT to manage an important
     coral reef, one that was already established as a protected area, BEFORE
     military involvement. First, let me review the history of the atoll as a
     means of explaining my points.

     The atoll was discovered by American ships in 1796 and 1807 and at the time
     it appeared to have never been inhabited.  In 1856, the U.S. claimed the
     atoll under provisions of the Guano Act, and guano was removed by an
     American company over the next 50 years.  In 1922 the atoll was visited by
     the Biological Survey of the Department of Agriculture and the Bishop
     Museum of Hawaii.  As a result of the scientific studies, in 1926 Johnston
     was first established by Executive Order 4467 for use by the Department of
     Agriculture as a refuge and breeding ground for native birds.  Years later
     Johnston and other similarly designated U.S. islands were established as
     National Wildlife Refuges under the administration of the U.S. Fish and
     Wildlife Service.

     With the threat of war on the distant horizon, Executive Order 6935 in 1934
     placed Johnston Atoll under the administration of the U.S. Navy, but
     retaining earlier provisions for the Refuge.  Jurisdictional
     responsibilities over the atoll were clarified in 1976 when the U.S. Fish
     and Wildlife and the Defense Nuclear Agengy signed a Memorandum of
     Agreement granting the Service jurisdictionand responsibility over the
     atoll's natural resources.  By recent agreement with the base commander,
     the extent of Refuge jurisdiction has been extended to include all waters
     within 3 nautical miles of emergent land and all coral reefs exposed at low
     tide.  Commercial fishing is not allowed in the refuge.

     In 1936 the Navy developed a seaplane base and later an airstrip and
     refueling facility.  In 1941 Executive Order 8682 established a Naval
     Defensive Sea and Airspace Reservation around Johnston and other nearby
     U.S. atolls.  The original atoll was extensively modified by dredging ship
     channels and seaplane landing areas and constructing new islands and
     enlarging existing islands.  Over the years the dredging and filling
     operations destroyed 400 hectares of coral reefs and damaged an additional
     2,800 hectares due to sedimentation from military cutterhead dredging
     operations.  Coral recovery has been noticeable but only along the
     submerged faces of the channels and basin.  No recovery has occurred on
     reefs converted to land and very little recovery has occurred on the deep
     sandy floor of the dredged channels and basin.  At best only 10% of the
     originally damaged reefs have recovered.

     After the Vietnam War, thousands of drums of the defoliant Agent Orange
     were stacked along both sides of the jointly used military and commercial
     runway for many years.  This was probably the worst place in the world to
     be storing the agent, and the rusting drums released unknown quantities of
     hazardous and toxic chemicals into the groundwater, and by extension onto
     adjacent reefs.  Subsequent chemical testing has revealed extensive dioxin
     contamination of groundwater and soils.  Eventually the specially designed
     incinerator ship Vulcanus was contracted to remove the drums and incinerate
     the agent in the open sea.  I'm not sure about the present state of dioxin

     During the late 1950s and until 1962, high altitude nuclear testing was
     carried out at Johnston, and in 1962 three rockets accidentally exploded on
     or above Johnston Island, scatttering plutonium particles over an area of
     several square miles.  The 1975 cleanup collected most of the contaminated
     soils on land and then stockpiled them in a 43-acre fenced area which I
     believe remains to this day. There may have been subsequent projects to
     remove the contaminants.  Adjacent reefs may still be contaminated with
     plutonium and I'm not sure whether land areas outside the fenced enclosure
     are still exposed to low level radiation.  Plutonium has a "half-life" of
     about 29,000 years.

     In 1970 U.S. Army chemical munitions (explosively configured nerve and
     mustard agents) in Okinawa were transported to Johnston atoll with many
     stored in aluminum warehousing near the shoreline subject to salt air and
     tropical, humid conditions.  Again from an environmental standpoint, a
     worst place in the world could not have been chosen, and it should come as
     no surprise that many of these munitions began to deteriorate and leak
     before they were later moved into underground igloos.  The rapid
     deterioration of these munitions was the principal reason for establishing
     JACADS (Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System), the first of a
     specially designed incinerator to destroy the munitions on a large scale
     basis.  Later in 1990, despite protests from many Pacific island nations,
     the U.S. also agreed to transport additional chemical munitions halfway
     around the world from Germany to Johnston to be destroyed.  After all
     munitions are destroyed, JACADS is to be dismantled and the atoll
     relinquished to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

     Since the late 1970s, the military has steadily improved their capacity to
     minimize damage to the atoll's natural resources.  They have worked closely
     with other on-site conservation agencies and have funded important
     environmental research and long range monitoring, including marine life and
     seabirds.  However, they do this in part because they are required by law
     to do so and in part because many others are looking over their shoulders,
     or in the case of the Service, working side-by-side them.

     However, the track record of the military before the mid 1970s at Johnston
     leaves much to be desired, as can be surmised from above.  Notwithstanding
     the excellent degree of cooperation and stewardship now over natural
     resources, it does not cancel out the thousands of hectares of reef areas
     that were destroyed and which will not recover.  Furthermore, much of the
     damage could have been avoided with the imposition of reasonable
     precautions.  Nor can it compensate for the unreasonable exposure of
     radionuclides, nerve agents and chemical defoliants to the atoll's
     ecosystem and inhabitants.  Indeed it is fortunate that much of the reef at
     Johnston is pristine and spectacular, but this is not due exemplary
     military planning.  It is due to the fact that these reef areas were
     probably always in excellent condition and were out of "harms way" during
     the massive military dredging and filling of the early 1960's.

     So what lessons can be learned, wither the reefs of Vieques?   I'd say that
     shared responsibility over the reefs is a must.  The military should be
     involved in order to assess and implement resoration actions and fund long
     range monitoring and cleanup programs, just as they are doing at Johnston.
     However, they should also be working, if not sponsoring, the activites of
     management and conservation agencies which have responsibilities over the
     coral reefs and other natural resources.  Some experienced environmental
     attorneys should also review the actions of the military at Vieques to
     determine whether they are in compliance with international environmental
     conventions and several U.S. environmental laws, including the National
     Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act,
     the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Coastal Zone Management Act,
     Superfund Act, other federal acts, the new Executive Order protecting coral
     reefs, and applicable Puerto Rican statutes.  If not in compliance, then
     the responsible parties can be compelled to do so, including the cessation
     of bombing and other damaging actions until corrective actions are taken.

     I make these observations as someone completely unfamiliar with the Vieques
     situation, and hopefully actions are already underway that will lead to a
     sustainable and reasonable future for the reefs of Vieques.

     James Maragos

     ____________________Reply Separator____________________
     Subject:  Re: Re[2]: Could bombing benefit Vieques reefs?
     Author:   Les Kaufman <lesk at>
     Date:          12/8/99 5:52 AM

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I want to thank Jim for the clarifications regarding Johnston Atoll vs.
Vieques, though I am a bit horrified that anything I said could have been
misconstrued as having implied that Johnston had been cratered.  I must
have been too subtle.  My point was only thata history of  military
jursidiction was not an entirely bad thing in all cases or in all ways.
It should be obvious that transition to long-term stewardship with
conservation in min and adequate resources to effect this goal, is the
desired situation.

I was also trying to DISPEL a notion that Johnston was a wasteland, an
impression that
might have been generated by existing misconceptions.  The Johnston atoll
reef is one of the most beautiful, interesting, and intact that I have
ever seen, and is a priceless observatory in which we can learn much about
coral reef ecology in an environment where we can also hope to seggregate
global from local signals.  All of this has nothing to do with the
military, and everything to do with recognizing the unique values
represented by the coral reef systems historically within military

As for Vieques, these days ANY Caribbean reef under effective stewardship
is a priceless thing, especially if it holds hope of preserving intact
representatives of Atlantic acroporid assemblages, which have been greatly

 Les Kaufman
Boston University Marine Program
Department of Biology
5 Cummington Street
Boston, MA 02215
lesk at
617-353-5560 office
617-353-6965 lab
617-353-6340 fax

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