WASHINGTON (CN) - Members of Congress grappled Tuesday with the fate of a trust set up for Pacific Islanders who were displaced by dozens of Cold War nuclear tests conducted by the United States in the Bikini Atoll.
Residents of the tiny atoll in the Marshall Islands were scattered among other islands, including Ejit and Kili, when radioactive fallout from the nuclear blasts conducted between 1946 and 1958 during the height of the nuclear arms race rendered Bikini uninhabitable.
One of those tests, known as Bravo, constituted the largest thermonuclear bomb the U.S. ever detonated.
U.S. officials promised the people of Bikini that they could someday return home, but contaminated soil and water have largely prevented that from happening. In 1982 the U.S. established the Bikini Resettlement Trust Fund to help care for the displaced Pacific islanders.
Though there is about $57 million left in it today, the fund held about $129 million at its peak. Typically, the local government draws about $5 million to $10 million annually from the fund to fund rehabilitation and resettlement projects.
The U.S. Department of Interior held a veto power for more than three decades over how much the people of Bikini could withdraw each year, but the agency abruptly announced that it was relinquishing that power in November 2017.
After the Congressional Budget Office determined the money in the fund was not federal money but belonged to the people of Bikini, the mayor of Kili-Bikini-Ejit passed a resolution in conjunction with the local government council to take control of all spending decisions related to the fund.
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, who introduced a bill that would limit expenditures from the fund to $2 million a year, voiced concern at a hearing Tuesday about the fund’s continued viability.
Seeking to restore some oversight of expenditures, Murkowski voiced alarm that the resolution passed by Mayor Anderson Jibas led to the immediate withdrawal of $11 million from the fund.
"We've heard reports of large sums being spent on things such as an airplane, two landing craft, an elaborate function in Hawaii, and cash payments to households on Ejit and Kili in the name of disaster relief, but without any damage assessment being conducted," said Murkowski, an Alaska Republican.
Testifying this morning before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Mayor Jibas soundly rejected the $2 million cap as "grossly inadequate."
"Now, in retaliation against the Department of the Interior's recognition that the department has no legal mandate to control the KBE Resettlement Trust Fund, this committee has introduced this legislation which frankly takes us back to a colonialist and paternalistic system that says the bureaucrats in a federal agency know what is best for the people of Bikini,” Jibas said, abbreviating Kili-Bikini-Ejit.
Researchers from Columbia University determined in 2016 that Bikini and other atolls in the Marshall Islands were still too contaminated for human habitation. Noting the $361 million price tag attached to a rehabilitation plan, which includes money in the trust fund in addition to $251 million awarded by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, Jibas said Congress has failed to follow through on funding the award.
"Be assured we cannot move back with our families until the islands are cleaned up,” Jibas said.
After Murkowski warned Jibas that he had exceeded his time limit to give testimony, the mayor noted he had three more pages to read to the committee after traveling 8,000 miles to Washington.
"When the U.S. told my ancestors that they would take care of us until we returned to our safe and clean land, Bikini Atoll, our ancestors actually believed the United States and allowed the United States to bomb our islands!" the written testimony by Jibas says. "Do we really think the U.S. Congress is going to fund the clean up and restoration of Bikini? No, we don't.
"We stopped believing in the U.S. Congress," Jibas added.
Jibas said that he and the local government council voted to take control of spending decisions to allow them to fund projects that will generate future income for the islands. He said Bikini Atoll has world-class scuba diving, but stopped drawing visitors 15 years ago due to unreliable air transportation.
"We plan to fix that," he said.
Compounding all of this are issues posed by climate change. Jibas said some of the recent $11 million withdrawal from the fund was spent on renovating and building new houses damaged by high tides.
But Jack Niedenthal, a U.S. citizen who received honorary Marshall Islands citizenship in 2000 and has worked to help preserve the trust, painted a darker picture Tuesday of how control over the fund shifted.
Not understanding why the change was made, Niedenthal said he tried to ask a Department of Interior official directly during a town hall in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, with assistant secretary of insular affairs Doug Domenech and other U.S. officials.
"A stairwell full of police refused to let me - or any other Bikinian with questions, including elected members of the council - up the stairs of the town hall even just to listen," Niedenthal testified.
All prior meetings with U.S. officials had been open to the public, he said.
"I can tell you that the trust fund that I worked for for over 30 years, and which has provided over $220 million to help the people of Bikini - is in danger of disappearing,” Niedenthal added.
Domenech with the Department of Interior testified alongside Jibas and Niedenthal Tuesday. He said the department does not support Murkowski’s bill, known as the Bikini Resettlement and Relocation Act.
"It is the department's position that the people of Bikini, through their elected leaders, have the right to amend the agreement in order to restore their local control over the funds provided to them as restitution for the U.S. Government's nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll,” Domenech said. “Further the Department believes that it does not have the right to veto the use of non-Federal funds that are not under our purview or jurisdiction."
Domenech apologized to Murkowski, who said she and her staff learned about the department’s policy change through a Nov. 28 press release.
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