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ENVIRONMENT BULLETIN-PANAMA: U.S. Resists Demands to Clean Up Panama Canal Bases

Silvio Hernandez

PANAMA CITY, Sep 26 1998 (IPS) - The United States will leave a frightening legacy of unexploded bombs and dangerous poisons in its wake when it leaves the Panama Canal zone at the end of the century.

Repeated pleas for a clean up campaign from Panamanian authorities have been turned down.

And this despite treaties signed in 1977 which oblige the United States to leave the canal, areas around present military bases and firing ranges free of contamination before withdrawing from the country on December 31, 1999.

US army and State Department representatives argue the lack of current procedures to guarantee total decontamination of these area exempt the United States from compliance, hence this nation considers its obligation ends on December 31, 1999.

Former president of Panama, Jorge Illueca, said the 10 billion dollar price tag on the clean up process was the ral key behind the US refusal to fulfil its commitment.

The issue provided much food for thought at a meeting of the Mixed Committee on the Environment attended by representatives from the twocoutries in Panama.

Political adviser from the US Embassy in Panama, Lewis Amselem, co-chair of this commission, said after 1999 the Central American nation will have to “assume responsibility for the cleansing of the firing ranges with their own financial and human resources.”

“From 1999, Panama will be responsible for handling the firing ranges will the assosciated risks posed by the presence of munitions,” added Amselem.

But his Panamanian counterpart, Fernando Manfredo, the other co- chair, said “while the threats to human life, health and security continue, the cleansing of the firing ranges will continue to be the responsibility of those who created the situation.”

“This is an economic and moral responsibility the United States must face up to, irrespective of the economic cost and the time required,” added Manfredo, assistant administrator of the Panama Canal from 1979 to 1989.

At least 15,000 hectares of land within the 1,442 square kilometers of the old canal zone were used for bombardment and firing practice with all sorts of munitions.

These areas were exclusively administered by the United States up until October 1979, when the treaties began to go into force.

A US non governmental group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation alleges some 3,000 hectares of this land has a high concentration of unexploded devices, contaminating agents and suspected remains of chemical, bacteriological and radioactive weapons.

A report released by this group in August stated that since the twenties the United States maintained “an active programme of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, in at least seven military bases in Panama.”

The Fellowship of Reconciliation warned that in Fort Clayton, near to Panama City, and on the Island of San Jose, on the Pacific coast, the US army carried out more than 130 tests with mustard gas, distilled mustard, phosgene, cyanogen chloride and hydrogen chloride between 1944 and 1947.

After indicating that these chemical agents remain lethal for several decades, the Fellowship of Reconciliation said the remains of these weapons had been stored in a secret location within the Rio Hato military base, 130 kilometers west of Panama city – a base already under Panamanian jurisdiction.

In the Tropical Testing Centre, in the region of Chivo Chivo, near the capital, the United Statestested and stored various types of munitions loaded with chemical elements, including M-23 mines, each of which contains nearly five kilograms of the VX neurotoxin.

Just ten milligrams of agent VXis enough to kill a human being, states the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

The same site was used for US army tests of anti-tank missiles loaded with spent uranium from 1990.

Biologist and science professor in the University of Panama, Carlos Arellano Lennox said the United States has a responsibility to clean up all the live ammunition left on the firing ranges along with all he contaminants.

“The various substances left behind remain deadly for longer than the lethal bombs or hand grenades, and they can produce irreparable damage to living beings, including humans,” said Arellano Lennox.

Substances like dinitrotoluene, which damages blood and nerves, pentachlorophenol, which produces cancer, lead tetraethyl and other poisons left behind in the canal zone are as dangerous, as live ammunition, if not more so.

Unexploded devices abandonned in the firing ranges have killed 12 people in the last 18 years.

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