MAKERETA KIMAI, PACNEWS Editor
at last week’s UN Oceans Conference
A number of Pacific leaders used last week’s UN Oceans Conference to bring global attention to nuclear contamination and World War Two wrecks that have become environment hazards.
Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands led the charge in highlighting what they call ‘real concerns’ over nuclear contamination or oil spills from over 60 year old shipwrecks in their territorial waters.
The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP) says there has not been much action since 2005 when its regional strategy on marine pollution from World War II wrecks was adopted because coastal states preferred to deal with the issue bilaterally with the Flag State vessel owners.
The two flag states for most of the 800 wrecks that litter the territorial waters of five Pacific countries are the United States and Japan. Most of the wrecks are remnants of World War II.
Tony Talouli, SPREP’s Pollution Adviser, told PACNEWS some of these wrecks have been identified as high risk due to the large quantities of oil in the vessels. A database of WW II wrecks by SPREP in 2003 said the government of Japan owns 326 vessels and the United States, 415.
“Currently for SPREP, the issue is addressed on a case by case basis at the invitation of the member state. The move now by some countries to support the resolution of this issue is a good sign,” said Talouli. “We have been hearing this call from FSM and Marshall Islands since 2012. They have taken it to the Forum Leaders meeting but nothing was resolved. SPREP is glad that it is now in the conversation of leaders here at the Oceans conference.”
Talouli said SPREP recognizes that more work needs to be done because from the record, there are 800 World War II wrecks that pose the risk of environmental damage. Most are in five Pacific countries – FSM, Marshall Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.
“The environmental risk is from the contaminants in the wrecks,” he said. “If the wrecks do not have any oil, it does not pose an environmental hazard. Most of these wrecks have become historic sites, although not declared by UNESCO yet. They become declared underwater heritage if they have been there 100 years. We have some wrecks that will likely be declared a cultural underwater heritage site in the next 20-30 years.”
Talouli said the removal of oil from a US oil tanker in Ulithi Lagoon in Yap in in 2002 at a cost of $6 million was the only exercise approved by the flag state and the Federated States of Micronesia.
“The removal of oil from the USS Mississinewa was an expensive recovery project,” he said. “The SPREP Council decided thereafter that the issue be not addressed at the regional level but between the flag and coastal states bilaterally. At the moment there are 60 wrecks in the Chuuk Lagoon in FSM and five or six of them are leaking oil.”
Talouli added: “It’s timely that the FSM and Marshall Islands are bringing this up now at the Oceans Conference because they want to do something about this issue before something catastrophic happens that will pollute and damage the environment.”
The draft Call for Action calls for accelerated action to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds including marine debris, hazardous substances and pollution from abandoned or lost ships.
Read more about this in the June 16, 2017 edition of the Marshall Islands Journal.