Clock Still Ticking for Victims of Toxic Waste
Posted:10:45 PM (Manila Time) | Jan. 06, 2004
IN THE BONHOMIE that oozed during President George Bush’s Manila visit last October, not a word was breathed about the plight of the thousands of toxic waste victims in the former American military bases in Clark and Subic. It was a display of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s mendicancy toward Washington that she toasted a man who waged a war of aggression against Iraq but failed to seek justice for her compatriots who continue to die and be afflicted with serious medical problems caused by the large-scale pollution left by the US military occupation.
America’s toxic waste legacy has been widely documented in studies made in the Philippines and in America. According to the People’s Task Force for Bases Clean-Up (http://www.yonip.com/toxicwaste or email: firstname.lastname@example.org), at least a thousand deaths have been attributed to the hazardous materials left in the water, soil and buildings of the former military bases. About 18,000 of 34,000 former workers in the US naval base in Subic, west of Manila, are ill from exposure to asbestos and other toxic chemicals. Families that lived near and beside the rivers that flowed from Subic Bay are suffering from a range of medical disorders as a result of ingesting contaminants when they bathed, drank and swam in the waterways.
At the former Clark Air Base Command (Cabcom), north of Manila, the situation is no less grim. Hundreds of children living in the fringes of the facility, who were conceived and born there, suffer congenital heart failures and central nervous system disorders. Those who grew and lived within the area have been found to develop immune system ailments and are now suffering from various types of cancer, including leukemia.
In January 1992, the US General Accounting Office identified polychlorinated byphenyl (PCB) contaminants, lead and other toxic substances buried in landfills that leaked into the soil and groundwater of Cabcom. The same report pinpointed 28 potentially contaminated sites in Subic and another 28 potentially contaminated training areas and ranges used by naval forces. In an internal 1986 study, the US Inspector General admitted that the US government took advantage of the lax regulatory climate in the host country and ignored available methods for protecting the environment.
The response of the US government to the toxic waste problem is typical of the superpower’s condescending arrogance. It claims no legal obligation to clean up its mess since neither party to the military bases agreement foresaw the consequences of storing toxic substances within the facilities. This frees it from picking up the tab for a cleanup and paying tort damages to the victims.
The US government should stop these cockamamie excuses.
It occupied and used Clark and Subic as a colonial sovereign for the first 48 years and as a privileged tenant for the next 46 years. It’s beyond cavil that the US government bears the responsibility for undertaking an official survey of the disaster’s extent and for rendering medical and financial assistance to the victims. The polluter should bear the cost of pollution.
As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rio Declaration of Environment and Development, Washington should take a second look at one of its key provisions. It affirms that “States have the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other states or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.” It is instructive to note that the US government has the habit of riding roughshod over the United Nations where its interests collide with that of the world community. Remember how President Bush, with characteristic hauteur, ordered the Iraq invasion over the UN’s objection to force a regime change in line with the neocon doctrine of military pre-emption?
The toxic waste problem is the story of a people’s quest for justice against a superpower as well as a fight for justice against their own government that tolerated the superpower’s abusive disregard of conventional norms governing the use of their territories. But in general, this is also the story of the Filipino people whose environment is the bigger victim of the two countries’ asymmetric relationship.
The Philippine government is no less complicit in the alliance to deny justice to the toxic waste victims. Staking out a narrow legal position, successive administrations have awkwardly claimed that the US government is beyond the reach and scope of Philippine courts. To say that the Macapagal-Arroyo government has no reason to rock the boat of Philippine-US relations, especially at a time when our bilateral focus should be on “fighting terrorism,” plumbs a new dimension in subservience to a foreign government.
President Bush’s Manila visit was another product of his spin-driven efforts seeking to portray the success of a global alliance against international terrorism. Maybe his stopover was a PR accomplishment in terms of diverting attention from his serial failures in Iraq. Perhaps now we can expect an increase in slightly used accouterments thrown our away, thanks to our newly conferred status as a major non-NATO ally of America. But for the Filipino people, the Bush visit will be remembered as President Macapagal-Arroyo’s betrayal of the innocent victims, both human and environmental, of a colonial relationship with the world’s unsurpassed hegemonic nation.
Ricardo S. Malay occasionally writes commentary pieces.
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