Sunday, January 10, 2010

Guam residents voice concerns about military's expansion plans

Guam residents voice concerns about military's expansion plans

Story and photos by Teri Weaver, Stars and Stripes
Pacific edition, Monday, January 11, 2010

MANGILAO, Guam — Hundreds of people on Guam showed up at public hearings last week to question, protest or try to understand a proposed U.S. military expansion that would add more than 9,000 troops to the island.

Some shouted against the move, which could increase the island’s population of 178,000 by an estimated 19 percent in seven years. A few cried in anger and sadness, saying they feared losing more of the island’s Chamorro culture. One high school student rapped his message. A college student sang his. A handful of older residents spoke only in Chamorro.

Still others cited the military’s environmental impact statement chapter and verse. And they challenged the military on a range of concerns — crime, sexually transmitted diseases, pollution, noise, traffic, health, trash, public schools, jobs.

"This is not normal population growth," Kenneth Leon-Guerrero, of Santa Rita, said at Saturday’s hearing in the University of Guam’s field house. "This is whether-you-want-it-or-not growth."

Until mid-February, the military is collecting written and verbal comments on its impact statement, a federally required study that explains how the military plans to avoid adverse effects, or mitigate them, as it expands. Six public hearings this month — four in Guam and two on nearby Tinian — are letting people sound off.

The Guam buildup plan was announced in 2006 as part of an agreement struck between the United States and Japan to move 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam — then priced at $10.29 billion. Other parts of the buildup include an Army air defense unit and a new pier for extended berths for aircraft carriers.

More recently, a newly elected Japanese government has balked at the plan because it relocates, rather than removes, a Marine air station on Okinawa. U.S. military officials, however, say they believe the move will go forward as planned.

Between the 2006 announcement and now, local Guam officials and residents heard few details about the plan. Just before Thanksgiving, the military issued the environmental impact statement, giving residents an in-depth look at what the military has in mind — nearly 80,000 extra people, for a time, on the 212-square-mile island.

“It has spurred considerable concern in the community,” said Guam Senator B. J. Cruz, who is considering reviving an effort to call for a public referendum on the buildup.

David Bice, a retired Marine general charged with shepherding the project, said the military wants the public unified behind the project.

“We want a one-Guam approach,” he said.

Deciding whether to embrace the project or reject it can be hard for some Guamanians.

Since 1993, Elizabeth and Richard Reed have lived next to the Navy’s 8,800-acre munitions storage base in the southern part of the island. More recently, they’ve seen the military surveying the area, and they feared the Navy was going to build a fence that would block the Reeds’ view.

Before Thursday’s hearing at Southern High School in Santa Rita, a Navy representative said no fence was planned. Elizabeth Reed, a local teacher, was relieved.

Reed said she has conflicting views about the buildup. Her husband is an architect, and the project could be a boon. But she also worries about the natural resources and added traffic on the island.

“I don’t dislike the military,” Reed said Thursday evening. “It’s just that it’s a small island.”

Some at the week’s hearings encouraged the crowds to welcome the buildup, as long as the military respects the island and its people.

Vicente Gumataotao, mayor of Piti, which includes Apra Harbor, was a boy during World War II when first the Japanese and then the Americans took over the island.

“If you lived through my life, you would be glad to see the Marines here,” he said.

But many didn’t buy the message.

“Guam is not a strategic location,” said Melvin WonPat-Borja, another local teacher and son of one of the Guam legislators critical of the plan. “Guam is the people.”

WonPat-Borja, his sisters, their friends and others organized We Are Guahan (Guam), a group protesting the buildup. At the hearings Thursday and Saturday, the group submitted many comments and posted protest signs outside and inside the hearing venues, including one that said: “8,000? How will it change our lives?”

Col. Robert Loynd is one of two Marines on Guam who currently make up Marine Forces Pacific (Forward) Guam, the unit proposed to grow to 8,600 Marines.

Many of the Marines would work in headquarters units and leadership roles, but all the Marines would need constant training in air movements, shore landings, small-arms firing and battalion-level maneuvering. An air station and more small-arms ranges are planned for Guam, while landing and mechanized maneuvering practice would be on nearby Tinian.

“This will not be a garrison force,” Loynd said later. “It will be a ready-to-go force.”

Carl Peterson has lived on Guam for 44 years and used to be a Russian linguist for the Navy. He spoke Saturday, saying the island needs the military for its industry and jobs.

“We need the money,” Peterson said of the island that relies mainly on tourism and has no major exports. “We can mitigate the challenges. We just need to find solutions to the problems.”

Christopher Salas, 16, is a junior at Southern, and he was interested to hear about some of those jobs.

The project is expected to create 43,000 jobs at its peak, with 7,000 long-term positions. About a quarter of all the jobs created would go to local residents, with the balance going to immigrant workers and other U.S. residents. As of September, 9.3 percent of people in Guam were out of work, just below the 9.8 percent average for unemployment nationally during the same month.

Salas said he’s worried about the Marines and about too many people coming to Guam to work and then staying. He fears locals would lose even more of their Chamorro heritage. And he said he’s troubled about rumors that Okinawans were kicking out the Marines because they committed too many crimes.

“I don’t want them coming here and disrespecting us,” said Salas, whose T-shirt read Guahan Soldier for Life. “I want to know the real reason the people in Okinawa want the Marines out.”

Bice said Friday he was pleased with the hearings so far.

He said public concerns already have affected plans. A firing range planned for the eastern side of the island would have hurt tourism and fishing, so the military now proposes putting the ranges elsewhere.

Dan Jackson lives near that proposed area on the eastern shores. He opened Saturday’s hearing by blowing a conch to announce the gathering. Then, in Chamorro, he encouraged the group to ban together against the buildup.

“This kind of strategy can be stronger than a typhoon,” Jackson said later in English.

Comments can be submitted at until Feb. 18, 3:30 p.m. Guam time.

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