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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 21, 2001

Hearings set on Johnston Island cleanup

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Affairs Writer

The Department of Defense has scheduled meetings around the state beginning today to discuss the cleanup of radiation on Johnston Island — the site of at least two failed nuclear missile tests in 1962 that littered the Pacific outpost with weapons-grade plutonium.

Comments from public sought
 •  The locations and times of meetings to discuss the cleanup of radiation on Johnston Island:
 •  Today, 5 to 8 p.m., Lihu'e Public Library, 4344 Hardy St., Lihu'e.
 •  Tomorrow, 5 to 8 p.m., Kahului Public Library, 90 School St., Kahului.
 •  Wednesday, 4 to 7 p.m., Hilo Public Library, 300 Waianueue Ave., Hilo.
 •  Thursday, 6 to 7 p.m., Washington Middle School, 1633 S. King St., Honolulu. Public "scoping" meeting to follow at 7:30 p.m.
Public comment is being sought on alternatives for the disposal of tons of radioactive coral, metal and concrete remaining at the military installation 825 miles southwest of Hawai'i. Part of a four-island atoll, Johnston also served as the world's first full-scale facility for the disposal of chemical weapons.

Federal wildlife officials continue to raise questions about the nuclear fallout's environmental impact, as well as whether the military will commit to long-term monitoring if the materials are contained on the island as expected.

"We do have some concerns about the marine environment, as much from the standpoint of what we don't know as what we do know," said Rob Shallenberger, a deputy project leader with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

The atoll is a migratory seabird refuge, with 50,000 acres of "spectacular reef" whose ecology is unique in drawing species from both the North and South Pacific — including Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles, Shallenberger said.

Johnston Island served as the launch site for 36 secret, high-altitude nuclear explosions that some longtime Hawai'i residents recall lighting up the nighttime sky.

Two aborted missile launches just days apart in the 1960s resulted in radioactive contamination raining back down on the island and its reef.

The first came from a launch called "Starfish" on June 20, 1962, that was aborted 59 seconds into flight. A self-destruct order blew the missile apart at about 30,000 feet.

Five days later, "Bluegill Prime" exploded on the ground, spewing plutonium and rocket fuel across the launch pad. "Bluegill Double Prime," meanwhile, was detonated early on Oct. 15, 1962. Despite reaching an altitude of 109,000 feet, the Defense Department said it may have contaminated Johnston.

Coral, metal and concrete contaminated by the plutonium, which has a half-life of 25,000 years, were pushed into four piles in a fenced 24-acre "radiological control area."

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency now is considering landfilling the coral using textile or concrete containers and soil caps as barriers. Also being considered is shipping the material off island.

Scrap metal could be sold and concrete used for reef building, meanwhile, or the materials could be shipped off the island or landfilled on Johnston, the defense department agency has said. Taking no action also is listed as a possibility for all the materials.

Shallenberger said landfilling the debris is most likely, and that has raised concern about future maintenance. Also of concern is the pacing of the project.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency had targeted the end of September for a decision. U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Shallenberger called the short window of time unrealistic, saying he would like to see a more comprehensive review of marine impact before the military pulls out.

In November, the last of the stockpile of weapons at the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System was destroyed, and the plant is being closed.

According to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a 1996 fish-sampling program showed that the levels of plutonium in lagoon fish are within the range found in fish sold for food in commercial markets. But Shallenberger said he wants to know if the plutonium is affecting longer-term factors such as fish populations.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has asked for more information concerning ecological risk. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency is working to provide those results, officials said.

The parties already have agreed on a maximum exposure level from contamination on Johnston Atoll, at 13.5 picocuries per gram of radioactive isotopes. The level equates to a dose of less than four millirem per year. By comparison, coast-to-coast round-trip airline passengers receive a dose of about five millirem.

Also left to be worked out is the issue of long-term monitoring. Shallenberger worries about the eventual erosion of a seawall backed by dredged material the military put in place to increase the island to its 700-acre size, and whether that would lead to greater marine contamination.

John Eddy, director of logistics and engineering for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, said the monitoring issue is under review, but the agency would be required to keep whatever radiation containment it used in a "safe condition."

Four public comment sessions are planned, followed by a scoping session to identify issues of concern and prepare a corrective measures study for the atoll. Defense Threat Reduction Agency officials will answer questions.