The Washington Post
January 10, 2000
No Home on Panama's Range
U.S. Left Munitions Scattered Over Canal Training Zones

                  By Serge F. Kovaleski
                  Washington Post Foreign Service
                  Monday, January 10, 2000; Page A14

                  PANAMA CITY, Panama—In handing over the Panama Canal, the
                  United States also bestowed on the Panamanian government something far
                  less desirable--thousands of acres littered with unexploded mortar shells,
                  grenades and other munitions from decades of arms testing and training by
                  the U.S. military.

                  As stipulated by the 1977 canal treaties, the U.S. government on Dec. 31
                  relinquished jurisdiction over the 360,240-acre Canal Zone, which includes
                  the waterway and numerous properties formerly used by American armed
                  forces--among them the Empire, Pina and Balboa West practice ranges.
                  While the accords ended a U.S. troop presence in Panama that spanned
                  nearly a century, they also required the United States "to take all measures
                  to ensure insofar as may be practicable that every hazard to human life,
                  health and safety is removed."

                  But the cleanup carried out by the U.S. military has been criticized as
                  inadequate by Panamanian officials and environmentalists. It left at least
                  7,700 acres of rain forest with residual explosives that have rendered those
                  areas too dangerous for human habitation or development.

                  U.S. officials said dense jungle and steep slopes made the task of clearing
                  more unexploded ordnance too difficult and at times too dangerous. They
                  also noted that further work would have caused significant environmental
                  damage to the canal's watershed.

                  Much to the dismay of President Mireya Moscoso's government, U.S.
                  Defense Department officials said that, based on empirical evidence and
                  rough assumptions about munitions, they estimate that at least 110,000
                  pieces of undetonated ordnance may be scattered along the ground or
                  buried under jungle cover in the most heavily used range areas. Before
                  leaving Panama, the U.S. military recommended that those 7,700 acres of
                  high impact--almost 20 percent of the ranges--remain closed to the public

                  "We have always said a small portion of the ranges would have to remain
                  off limits to people because cleaning them up was not practicable or even
                  possible in some cases," said Susan Wood, a deputy assistant secretary of
                  state for Western Hemisphere affairs. Overall, she added: "We did the
                  cleanup in good faith and complied with treaties. But there is always this
                  problem of the definition of the term 'practicable.' "

                  For years, the U.S. military has posted warning signs around hazardous
                  sections of the ranges, but Moscoso's government said the areas still pose
                  a threat to residents of adjacent poor communities who venture into the
                  fields to collect scrap metal for sale or to hunt for food and plant crops.

                  An estimated 60,000 people live in neighborhoods surrounding the ranges,
                  a population that is expected to grow to around 100,000 in the next few
                  years as Panamanians move closer to the capital in search of opportunities.
                  In the last two decades, at least 21 Panamanians have been killed and
                  others injured on or near the ranges by explosives that they stepped on or
                  tinkered with.

                  The failure of the United States to clear more land has prompted
                  Panamanian officials to accuse Washington of violating the treaties and to
                  explore legal and diplomatic means of persuading the Clinton
                  administration to complete the cleanup. The Moscoso government
                  contends the United States undertook the ordnance removal late--not
                  beginning in earnest until December 1997--failed to share information and
                  ultimately skirted its responsibility by falling back on the word

                  "I think the interpretation of the word is unilateral and self-serving," said
                  Juan Mendez, director of the office of treaty affairs at the Foreign Ministry.
                  "We do not want money or compensation. We want the ranges clean . . .
                  and we will pursue it firmly and responsibly until that is done."

                  Panamanian officials and environmentalists acknowledged that getting rid of
                  the unexploded ordnance could take years and cost tens of millions of
                  dollars. But, remarked John Lindsay-Poland, director of Latin American
                  programs for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an American group that is
                  urging the United States to clear the properties: "How feasible is it to clean
                  up the areas? How feasible was it to build the canal?"

                  The dispute has raised questions about future bilateral relations following
                  an otherwise smooth transfer of the Canal Zone to Panamanian control that
                  marked the end of an era dating to 1903, when the United States
                  facilitated Panama's independence from Colombia to construct the
                  50-mile-long waterway.

                  "The United States should be ashamed of [the contamination] that it has left
                  behind. What a legacy," said Fernando Manfredo, a Panamanian who
                  helped preside over a U.S.-Panama working group on the cleanup. He
                  added: "Now we have to do the same thing we did to get the 1977
                  treaties. We have to build international support to convince the United
                  States to finish the job."

                  In the meantime, the Panamanian government has retained the Washington
                  law firm Arnold & Porter to provide legal analysis of U.S. obligations and
                  to oversee an independent assessment. The report, which includes more
                  than 60 photographs, contests the U.S. position that the vast majority of
                  land outside the high-impact areas is cleared and ready for full use.

                  One of the photos shows what is said to be an unexploded 60mm mortar
                  shell on the Empire range that is slightly visible above the surface of a road
                  leading up a hill. Another photo identified a live rocket warhead lying in
                  jungle terrain, while others showed practice grenades lying outside the
                  impact areas as well as mounds believed to contain undetonated munitions.
                  Researchers also found unexploded ordnance on surfaces of hilly terrain
                  that were less steep than the maximum grade the U.S. military generally
                  used as a limit for its cleanup effort.

                  "We are not sure we concur with their findings," said Wood. "The first step
                  is to determine whether our assessment is the same as the government of

                  The U.S. government said it cleaned up as much contamination from the
                  ranges as was possible before starting to turn over control of the ranges in
                  July. Officials estimated that the U.S. military cleared about 80 percent of
                  the ranges, removing more than 8,500 pieces of unexploded ordnance and
                  about 2.1 million pounds of scrap metal, mostly from the surface of
                  maneuver areas where the prevalence of munitions was dramatically less
                  than in the zones designated as high impact.

                  The U.S. government said that the cleanup did not begin earlier in part
                  because portions of the ranges were still being used by the few remaining
                  troops in Panama and because the United States had been negotiating with
                  the previous government about maintaining a military presence in the
                  country at a proposed regional anti-drug base. Those discussions
                  eventually collapsed.

                  According to several sources familiar with the ordnance clearing
                  operations, even some U.S. troops complained that the cleanup was not
                  thorough enough. On many occasions, the sources said, troops were
                  instructed to look only for unexploded munitions at ground level,
                  particularly near paths, and often were not equipped with metal detection
                  devices, relying only on visual assessments.

                  Robert Pastor, an adviser on Latin America in the Carter administration
                  who was involved in the 1977 treaty negotiations, said: "It is clear that the
                  U.S. government was slow to address the issue . . . and did as little as it
                  could get away with.

                  It is expensive, the Pentagon is concerned with precedent, and the current
                  administration never really attached itself to Panama."

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