SAN JOSE ISLAND, Panama — Even as the United States presses for the rapid destruction of chemical weapons in Syria, a dispute lingers over unexploded chemical munitions that U.S. soldiers left on a Panamanian island more than 60 years ago.
Panama has pressed the United States for decades to remove them, and now it’s optimistic that the Obama administration has agreed.
But the administration itself is less definitive about whether an agreement has been struck to clean up the ordnance that litters San Jose Island, 60 miles into the Pacific from Panama City, the nation’s capital.
The World War II-era chemical munitions are known to include phosgene and mustard gas, and may include other toxic chemical agents. From 1945 to 1947, a contingent of U.S. soldiers tested chemical weapons on the then-deserted island, leaving behind at least eight unexploded 500- and 1,000-pound bombs.
A decade ago, the U.S. government offered to train Panamanians to clean up the mess as long as Panama released the United States from liability. Panama rejected the offer, demanding that the Pentagon itself remove and dispose of the toxic munitions.
Today, as the U.S. government presses Syria to destroy its chemical weapons under threat of military action, Washington may be showing more flexibility in its offer to Panama for cleaning up San Jose Island, a tropical bastion of unspoiled beaches and wild pigs that’s been the setting for several episodes of the CBS reality show “Survivor.”
The Pentagon will send a team later this year to survey the part of the island where chemical munitions are known to exist, Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez Fabrega said in an interview. Another team will dispose of the canisters next year, he added.
“I have a firm commitment from the United States,” Nunez Fabrega said.
In May, Panama formally requested – through the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body based in The Hague, Netherlands, whose inspectors now are overseeing the destruction of Syria’s arsenal – that the United States remove eight chemical bombs found there in a 2002 survey.
The Obama administration declined to say whether the outlines of an agreement have been reached.
“The U.S. government is reviewing Panama’s request concerning the munitions on San Jose Island and is committed to resolving this issue in a timely manner,” said Jennifer D. Elzea, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
For the owners of the private, largely virgin island among the Las Perlas Archipelago, news that a cleanup may be imminent brings joy.
“Why it took so long or anything like that, it doesn’t matter. We’re excited that it’s going forward,” spokesman John Zima said. “The Americans are living up to their obligations. They are actually doing the right thing.”
San Jose Island, with an area around 17 square miles, is three times larger than Key West in Florida and bigger than some island nations in the South Pacific. Girdled by a rugged, rocky shoreline with more than 50 beaches, the island is home to thousands of deer and wild pigs.
Zima said news reports from the 1940s indicated that around 200 U.S. soldiers were dispatched there to conduct chemical warfare testing.
According to a 1988 U.S. Army book, “The Chemical Warfare Service: From Laboratory to Field,” U.S. soldiers came to the island to assess “chemical warfare weapons under tropical conditions.”
They tested 1,000-pound bombs that contained phosgene and cyanogen chloride, and smaller mustard-filled bombs, the book says. Other reports say the soldiers also tested VX nerve gas and sarin, the lethal neurotoxic agent that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found had been used in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria, on Aug. 21.
“These studies gave the participants valuable data on the offensive and defensive phases of chemical warfare in jungle fighting,” the book says.
Zima said in an email that the abandoned chemical munitions lie scattered “on a very small percentage (9 percent, approximately) of the island, mostly in the northwest section.” A small coastal eco-resort popular among sport fishermen is on another corner of the island, which has some 32 miles of roads, some of them compacted earth, and a 5,000-foot earthen airstrip that, if it were paved, could handle a Boeing 737 aircraft.
Owners have significant plans for development, Zima said, including “perhaps another hotel, selling some lots around the hotel, maybe some golf courses.”
It isn’t clear what kinds of chemical bombs were abandoned on the island.
“The expert feeling is that whatever is in those bombs is probably not dangerous,” said Tomas A. Cabal, the head of the anti-terrorism analysis unit at the Foreign Ministry. “They may hold phosgene and mustard gas.”
But he said the canisters also held explosive detonators, which might be less stable and a greater threat.
Cabal, who took part in negotiations over the cleanup earlier this year at The Hague, said U.S. delegates had requested only one change in Panama’s petition to have the chemical munitions cleaned up.
“They requested that we change the wording to read that they had not ‘abandoned’ but that they had ‘forgotten’ ” about the munitions, he said.
The United States has played an outsized role in the history of Panama, helping it to declare independence from neighboring Colombia in 1903 in order to gain U.S. sovereignty over a 10-mile-wide ribbon of land to build the Panama Canal, then stationing thousands of U.S. troops there to protect the waterway.
The U.S. government ceded control of the canal to Panama in 1999, and numerous U.S. military bases also reverted to Panama.
Panama complained, however, that the Pentagon had turned over bases and shooting ranges without cleaning up some 120,000 rounds of medium- and large-caliber munitions, such as mortar rounds. Watchdog groups say the U.S. military may have conducted chemical-weapons testing at as many as 16 sites across Panama.
“We carried out a concerted effort to have these training sites cleaned up,” recalled Jose Miguel Aleman, who was the foreign minister from 1999 to 2003.
The chemical munitions on San Jose Island were a particular sore point for Panama, he said, and the nation thought it had little choice but to reject the 2003 offer by then-U.S. Ambassador Linda Watt to train Panamanians to clean up the island in exchange for a “quit-claim” provision exonerating the U.S. government of liability.
“It was not acceptable to us because it did not comply with the OPCW treaty, which says that any nation that abandons chemical weapons is responsible for cleaning up those weapons,” Aleman said.
“In the balance of excellent relations, there are blemishes, and this was one of the blemishes,” he added.
When the United States ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997, it said in its declaration that it hadn’t abandoned chemical weapons in any other nation’s territory.
Another former diplomat, Ramon A. Morales, who served for five years as Panama’s ambassador to the United Nations until 2004, said buried U.S. ordnance remained a serious problem in his country.
“Unofficially, it is known that there have been some 20 deaths by people who have handled this UXO,” Morales said, using the abbreviation for unexploded ordnance.
“San Jose Island is a mini problem compared to the rest of the country,” he said, noting that U.S. officials have been reticent to provide full details of the pollutants and explosives left in the jungles. “It’s very hard for a little country like Panama to shake out the information from the world’s most powerful country.”
Morales said the $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal, which should conclude next year, had hit occasional roadblocks as contractors dealt with buried unexploded bombs. Construction of a new bridge across the canal on the Atlantic Ocean side also was delayed a month last year when workers found ordnance.
“This shows how expensive the problem has been for us,” Morales said.
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