Sunday, January 10, 2010

Residents air buidup concerns: Health care, land issues raised at UOG field house

Residents air buidup concerns: Health care, land issues raised at UOG field house

By Laura Matthews • Pacific Sunday News • January 10, 2010

The University of Guam's field house teemed with varying emotions yesterday when more than 500 people gathered to publicly comment on the draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Die-hard activists, determined landowners, concerned citizens and officials paced the floor of the field house, reading all the information on display. They talked with military officials about the buildup, in order to learn all they could before the public comment session.

Signs that read: "Only independent nations control immigration" and "Yankee go home!" showed military officials where they stood with some residents.

Then, the conch shells were blown, the Guam national anthem was sung and the proceedings for the second public hearing on the draft Environmental Impact Statement got underway.

The first speaker on the day was Vice Speaker Benjamin Cruz, who expressed public health concerns as Guam prepares to get about 20 years of growth over the next five years because of the military buildup.

Approximately 8,000 Marines and their 9,000 dependents will be brought to the island. In total, the buildup is projected to bring about 80,000 people to Guam by 2014, which will increase Guam's population by almost half its current size.

"My main concern is that the hospital is the choke point," Cruz said. "We just don't have enough beds to take care of the people coming."

The vice speaker told Department of Defense officials that he would like for the final Environmental Impact Statement to be "very specific" about how it is going to address the need for more hospital beds on island.

"The hospital is unable to take care of us at this time. We are short of doctors," he said.

The draft Environmental Impact Statement notes that the island's health-care system will need a personnel increase of 26 percent in order to deal with the growth. It also states that at the peak of the construction phase in 2014, an additional 15 doctors and 91 nurses will be needed.

Land concerns

Some residents expressed worry they might lose their land.

Juan Martinez Unpingco, an 85-year-old Sasayan Valley landowner, said he worked two jobs throughout his lifetime in order to feed his eight children and save enough money to buy property. That piece of property, he said, sustaines his livelihood.

"This has obviously paid off since it has been helping me to pay all my medical bills," Unpingco said. "Thus, the property I own in Marbo Cave has indeed sustained my livelihood and I plan to deed it to my children upon my death. I anticipate that my children would do likewise and deed the property onto the next generation."

He said he fears the military will take his land through condemnation and asked them not to.

"I am in support of the military buildup, provided there is no land condemnation," he said. "It was my bread and butter. I worked very hard for it. I will sell it or rent it."

Joint Guam Program Office Executive Director David Bice, a retired Marine major general whose office oversees the buildup, has said that residents whose lands are used for military projects will get a fair price. The Defense Department follows strict procedures to pay landowners the fair market value, he said, also noting that congressional defense committees would first have to approve any major land acquisitions by the military.

Juan Unpingco's son, Superior Court of Guam Judge Steven S. Unpingco, also a private landowner, said the draft Environmental Impact Statement fails to address "the contentious issue" of land condemnation. Moreover, the Sasayan Valley area is a proposed alternative for a live firing range -- an idea he said should be dismissed.

"Equally important to the public is the impact that explosive grenade and demolition ranges may have on the environment," he said. "Is there any specific study on any potential environmental degradation or possible lead contamination from these activities on soil?"

Speaking out

Melvin Won Pat-Borja, a 28-year-old teacher and member of the We Are Guahan group, said his generation should know that it is important to let their voices be heard. They don't need to be "a scientist or an expert to comment on the EIS," he said.

The group is a combination of residents who seek to disseminate the information from the lengthy draft Environmental Impact Statement to ordinary citizens in a way that is easily understood.

"This problem will not affect the people who are making the decisions. It will ultimately be our youth," he said. "I have students who will be graduating this year and will possibly be graduating college in four years. And when they want to come back home and raise their families here and make a living here, things will not be the same as they were when they left. This island will not be the same as it was when they left."

Residents have until Feb. 17 to submit their comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement, which will reshape nearly all aspects of life on Guam.

The public meetings are a way the military officials garner the concerns of the citizens, which will be evaluated and taken into consideration to make better decisions as the military moves forward with the final EIS, Bice said.