Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Chuuk Lagoon Facing “Imminent Threat” from WWII Ships


By Olivier Wortel
November 14, 2006

Japanese war vessels sunk more than 60 years ago beginning to leak greater amounts of pollutants.
CHUUK, FSM – Chuuk’s world class diving – and a big chunk of the local economy – centers around the sunken ships that rest at the bottom of its spectacular island-dotted lagoon. Those ships now also pose what is potentially the greatest threat to the most populous state of the Federated States of Micronesia: massive oil leaks from the tankers and destroyers and other WWII relics that could create the biggest environmental catastrophe to ever hit its’ shores.

“The rate of leakage is rising dramatically,” says Joe Konno, former Director of the Chuuk Environmental Protection Agency, speaking on the subject as it relates to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, or POPs. Konno often represents the FSM at international environmental forums.

The 57 wrecks made up of destroyers, transports, cargo, submarines, tugs, carriers, tankers and other vessels, have for decades provided local blaster groups with enough raw powder and munitions to dynamite areas of the lagoon and its abundant reefs for illegal hauls of fish. Now, the disintegrating hulls are also creating havoc with the leakage of diesel fuel, oil, and other chemicals toxic to the environment.

“If one of those ships happens to break loose in the lagoon or on the reef, you can imagine the damage it will cause from the loads of fuel being released,” Konno cautioned a group of leading environmental leaders at the recent 1st Environment Conference, held in Palikir, Pohnpei.

Asterio Takesy of Chuuk, Director of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), a regional environmental organization, said, in a recent discussion at the same conference in Pohnpei that the issue of leakage is “approaching an emergency situation.”

SPREP recently concluded a survey of all sunken vessels from the massive and violent US Navy bombing of the Japanese 4th Fleet in February 1944 in Chuuk Lagoon, as well as all other WWII sunken vessels throughout the entire Pacific.

Considered second only to Pearl Harbor in strength, the U.S. saw this Imperial Navy base as a major threat, and conducted Operation Hailstone in crystal-blue Chuuk Lagoon, a 2-day intense aerial bombing campaign that continued in various forms until the war’s end.

“War ships, cargo ships, and then we have the tankers,” said Takesy, “and the tankers and larger ships are your immediate concern…There ought to be some discussions between the FSM government and the government of Japan” on the impending environmental threat.

It is a bi-lateral matter between these two nations. Although the FSM profits from the vessels through tourism revenue, maritime law dictates that it is Japan that still owns the sunken ships and planes.

The FSM and Chuuk specifically do not have the myriad resources necessary to handle such a potential disaster.

Environmental leaders have called for “immediate actions” to be taken “to remedy the imminent environmental threat posed by the sunken World War II ships” by the end of 2007.

In the coming months, it is expected that Chuuk Governor Wesley Simina will send an official communication to FSM President Joseph Urusemal in order to try to elevate at the national level the priority of the threat posed by the situation, and move forward the possibility of bilateral talks with the government of Japan on the pressing issue.

The Earth Watch Institute, a high resolution satellite data and information provider, has sent a team that has been helping the Chuuk government and the EPA on a detailed study of the wrecks in recent weeks to record information on the lagoon’s archaeology and on the corrosion and current decay rates of the wrecks.


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