Three Marshall Islanders delivered clearly worded testimony to Rep. Katie Porter’s subcommittee seeking US Congressional action to ensure that the Marshall Islands nuclear test legacy is fully addressed by the US government.
Despite a refusal to date by the US executive branch to agree to address the nuclear issue within the framework of Compact renegotiations, Foreign Minister Casten Nemra told the hearing: “The nuclear issues must be addressed and the RMI will insist that discussions take place in the current Compact negotiations to deal with these many unresolved issues related to US atmospheric nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands which have been put off far too long.”
The testimony of Nemra, National Nuclear Commission Chairperson Rhea Moss-Christian, and Arkansas Marshallese advocate Melisa Laelan resonated and connected with members of the subcommittee, including Reps. Nydia Velazquez of New York, Jesus Garcia of Illinois and Paul Gosar of Arizona. Velazquez and Garcia reflected on the experience of Puerto Rico with US military testing and displacement, while Gosar said they have similar issues preventing compensation of American Downwinders under the Congressionally approved RECA law.
Confirming the impact Marshallese are having in Arkansas, Rep. Steve Womack, who represents the Springdale area in Congress, introduced Laelan to the subcommittee. Womack said “Marshallese families are an integral part of our community” and described Laelan as a successful advocate for services needed by the Marshallese in the area. He then asked the subcommittee to “welcome Melisa Laelan from Springdale.”
Laelan said from her role as head of the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, she sees the impact of nuclear testing on Marshallese who have migrated to the US, which she descried as “inter-generational trauma and mistrust of the US.” Laelan added that many in Arkansas are direct descendants of nuclear test victims. Generations later, many are still looking for a permanent home,” she said. “The US should deal with relocation as a priority.” She also urged the US government to develop a “pathway to US citizenship” for Marshallese.
“We need action,” said Moss-Christian. “I am here to state the case for action and for a fuller measure of cooperation, trust, and justice than has characterized the past three-quarters of a century.”
She added: “We desperately need the oversight and investigation of DOE to address the fact that there is no cancer care facility or even an oncologist in the Marshall Islands today…Through this Subcommittee’s efforts, there is a chance for progress, but this requires the US government to acknowledge the full scope of damages and injuries. People are entitled to payment of their awards from the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, and others deserve a chance to have their claims heard.”
Rep. Porter asked the RMI group if the US government had apologized for the nuclear testing. Both Moss-Christian and Laelan said no. “An apology is a pathway to a new dialogue for services needed,” said Moss-Christian. “An apology says the US is willing to work with the people,” said Laelan.
Asked about the status of Compact negotiations, Foreign Minister Nemra said there had not been much progress. “The last formal session was in December,” he said, adding he was anticipating resuming soon but that no meeting had been scheduled. Before this can happen, the agenda must be broadened to what needs to be address, he said.
Many US Congress members at last week’s oversight hearing expressed concern about the US nuclear legacy in the RMI and called for US administration action to resolve the outstanding issues in negotiations with the RMI as well as stepping up the pace of monitoring activity of the nuclear waste site known as the Runit Dome.
Chaired by California Representative Porter, this was the first hearing in the Congress on the Marshall Islands in over 10 years. Porter chairs the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
The range of Marshall Islands issues were discussed against the backdrop of widespread Congressional concern about China’s expansion in the Pacific region and the need for the US to counter it through actions such as adopting a “good faith approach to the Marshall Islands” in the renegotiation of provisions of the Compact of Free Association.
Porter did not mince words in her short introduction at the start of the hearing, saying it was “especially shocking” to revisit the story of the Bravo test when the US government determined that Rongelap was among the most contaminated places in the world but still returned the population to live there. She said the Compact’s 177 compensation package provided less than 10 percent of the damages later awarded by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal.
She criticized the State Department for not appearing at the hearing in light of the key issues being discussed that relate to the negotiations and other matters in State Department jurisdiction. Interior and Energy were represented. In a short statement provided to the Journal after the hearing, the State Department said it offered to do a private briefing for members of the committee instead. State said it decided it was “inappropriate” for it to appear.
Ranking Republican on the subcommittee Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona focused his commentary on China, saying “good relations with the Marshall Islands are a key part of US national security.”
Department of Energy Associate Undersecretary for Environment, Health, Safety and Security Matthew Moury said monitoring of the Runit Dome started because of US Congressional legislation in 2012. In 2018, DOE scientists determined “more robust monitoring” would help understand issues related to leakage of radioactivity into the lagoon. A plan was prepared to drill new bore holes around the dome to collect more detailed information. This plan remains pending and is to be implemented once travel allows, he said.
Interior Director of Insular Affairs Nikolao Pula noted that the Compact approved in 1986 included a “full settlement of all claims” but added that the US government has added on ex-gratia payments and other support in addition to the Compact settlement.
Porter zeroed in on the “toxic material” in the Runit Dome, directing a question to Pula. “Mr. Moury says the Marshall Islands bears full responsibility to monitor the dome. Do you agree?” Pula was equally blunt: “Nope, I don’t agree.” While the Marshall Islands owns the islands it is the US responsibility to work with the RMI on monitoring of the dome, he said.
Porter said the US government’s interpretation that the Marshall Islands “owns the dome” is “an incorrect interpretation of law.”
Gosar and others pressed Pula for an update on the Compact negotiations. He responded that negotiations were ongoing, adding Interior is still waiting for appointment of an Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs. Gosar pressed Pula on the number of meetings that have been held, when they were held and wanted to know if the talks will be completed by 2023 when the Compact’s grant funding agreement expires. Pula responded that he hoped the negotiations would be wrapped up by then and said he anticipated a meeting with the RMI in the next couple of weeks. Pula said the negotiations were a high priority.
Hawaii Rep. Ed Case, responding to DOE comments about work needed at the Runit Dome, said “it doesn’t feel like this is a priority and if we’re concerned with leakage, it needs to be.” Moury said Covid restrictions had delayed further work but was hopeful that the bore hole project would move ahead in 2022.
A. Samoa Rep. Amata Radewagen said the Marshall Islands “is dear to my heart,” and added it was a concern to her that the US government was “washing its hands” of matters in the RMI because of the 1986 Compact. “The Marshallese people love America,” she said. “They don’t hate us for the harm done, but let’s not turn our back and force Marshall Islands to consider aid from others” — a clear reference to China. “Let’s not ignore our obligation to the Marshall Islands as human beings.”