SEIS forum revives split sentiment on military buildup

Donnie Flores holds a placard as Guam officials including Delegate Madeleine Bordallo, Sens. Frank Aguon and Aline Yamashita listen to the moderator during a public hearing on the draft supplemental environmental impact study held at Okkodo High School on Saturday. Photo by Jonathan Abella / For Variety

AN emotion-filled forum Saturday on the draft supplemental environmental impact statement for the relocation of U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam touched on a host of issues that widened the community's rift over the military presence on Guam.

More than 100 showed up for the first public meeting hosted by the Joint Guam Program Office at Okkodo High School, where each speaker from the community delivered a three-minute impassioned testimony on the draft SEIS.

Most of the speakers, however, focused their testimony more on their respective standpoints on the military buildup rather than the content of the draft study itself.

The business sector rallied in support of the relocation, saying the program offers an economic salvation for Guam.

The Chamorro activists, on the other hand, renewed their anti-military sentiment, further fueled by the land issues related to Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo’s proposed Ritidian surface danger zone.

Saturday’s forum was the first in a series of public meetings scheduled by JGPO to seek community input on the draft supplemental study, which was released by the Navy late last month.

The draft study contains an assessment of the environmental impacts of the construction and operation of a cantonment, including family housing, and a live-fire training range complex and specifies the preferred site at Northwest Field.

Property issue

“After reviewing the draft SEIS, especially the Northern Westfield field alternative, I had found that there was no proposed mitigation to provide alternative public access to the areas that were not restricted when the live-fire training range is in operation,” Sen. Frank Aguon said. “There should be a walking trail, a golf trail and a vehicle access to the unrestricted areas.”

He suggested that an alternative for public access should minimize any environmental impact. “I would like to see a proposal on an alternate access route to these unrestricted areas,” Aguon said.

John Robertson is in favor of the preferred site for the training range.

“Some limited restrictions on access to a small portion of Ritidian is, in my opinion, a small sacrifice for us in exchange for our local security and fulfilling our responsibility toward national defense,” Robertson said. “I believe the military can be relied upon to do the right thing in upholding its responsibility in protecting and even enhancing the value of the Ritidian wildlife preserve.”

Melva Artero said her family is among the original landowners, “who will never get to enjoy the remaining properties by Urunao Beach” once the surrounding area is closed off.

Barbara Benavente said the concerns raised by landowners are not “about opposing the military buildup; it’s about reclaiming our rights to our property.”

Economic benefits

David Leddy, president of the Guam Chamber of Commerce, said the military buildup will stir economic growth, bring more jobs, more federal dollars, better facilities and a better quality of life for the people of Guam.

“We understand that change is not easy,” he said. “But the short-term pain that comes with change is a small compromise compared to the long-term benefits.”

Phillip Santos, vice chairman of the chamber’s armed forces committee, said the most serious concerns raised about the Marines’ relocation plan “have been heard, addressed and resolved in the most realistic and most reasonable manner given the complexity and urgency of getting on with the task of relocating forces to Guam.”

“We believe that more than adequate time has passed for review, engagement and public debate and that the time for action and record of decision is now,” Santos said.

‘Not worth it’

Delivering the most impassioned testimony, Speaker Judith Won Pat said the promise of economic benefits from the military buildup may not be worth it for Guam.

“In my close reading of the SEIS, I have learned that our island's economic activity will only slightly improve. Our tax revenues will only see a slight 3 percent increase by the end of the construction phase,” Won Pat said.

“However, our government will also have to incur the cost of the strain on our public agencies, which lessens our profit from the increased revenues. The SEIS also states that higher costs of goods, services and housing will push people on the verge of poverty into poverty or even homelessness,” she said.

Won Pat is seeking a cost-benefit analysis “to understand the true impact of this buildup, and whether or not it is worth the sacrifices our community will have to make.”

Victoria Leon Guerrero, one of the founders of We Are Guåhan, said the strain on the environment and culture is greater than the purported economic benefits of increased military presence on Guam. “It is not the kind of future that I want to live in,” she said.

Another public meeting will be from 5 to 9 p.m. today at the Father Duenas Memorial School Phoenix Center. The last meeting is scheduled for tomorrow, from 5 to 9 p.m. at the old McCool School building on Route 5, now known as the Naval Base Guam Santa Rita Annex.

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