Environment group lauds VFA termination, cites toxic waste U.S. troops left behind

An activist group welcomed President Rodrigo Duterte's move to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, and called it "a step towards exacting justice for all the environmental crimes" the US government committed in the Philippines.

The Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment said in a statement on Thursday, February 13: "While [we] criticize the Duterte administration for its foreign relations and environmental policies and programs, we welcome the…termination of the [VFA]. It is a just move towards ending an unjust, disadvantageous, and environmentally destructive military agreement."

The group condemned the US military's "long track record of environmental destruction and pollution" in the Philippines, especially in Subic Bay and Clark Airfield, which used to be the largest American military bases outside the US until 1992.

In the years following the American troops' pullout, findings that they had left toxic waste on the ground, in landfills, and in waterways in the former bases were widely reported. Many Filipinos were suspected to have gotten sick or even died from exposure to hazardous materials in Subic and Clark.

The US government itself has acknowledged contaminated sites and facilities in its former bases that violated even its own environmental standards. However, the deal that allowed the Philippine government to take over the land and facilities that belonged to the bases also absolved the US government from accountability for the contamination, reports said.

"Toxic chemicals such as aldrins, dieldrin, petroleum hydrocarbons, lead, mercury, and others have contaminated the soil and groundwater in [unsafe levels according to] environmental standards, affecting the health of thousands in nearby communities," leading to the death of 200 people and sickening of 10,250 others, Kalikasan said.

The group also cited environmental violations in the era of the VFA, after its ratification in 1999 that allowed US troops to return for joint exercises with the Philippine military, and other activities within Philippine territory.

In October 2012, a vessel of the US Navy contractor Glenn Defense Marine Asia dumped 189,500 liters of domestic waste and 760 liters of bilge water onto Philippine territorial waters near Subic Bay. The incident prompted a Senate inquiry.

In January the following year, the US Navy minesweeper USS Guardian ran aground near the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea, causing an estimated $27 million in environmental damage. The US government eventually paid only $1.97 million for it.

Besides these, Kalikasan also pointed out the toll yearly joint military exercises take on the environment.

"Annual Balikatan exercises and war games, which [involve] live ammunition, heavy bombardments, tanks, and ships leave a high ecological footprint, and pose a danger to adjacent…communities," the group said.

Other agreements, too

"With the termination of the VFA, we urge the Duterte administration to also end other unfair agreements with the US such as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA), and others," Kalikasan added.

The EDCA and MLSA are deals anchored to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the US, which binds either country to come to the other's aid in case of an armed attack by a foreign aggressor.

Duterte officially ordered the termination of the VFA on Tuesday, February 11, after more than two weeks of suspense since he first threatened to scrap the deal on January 23 over the cancellation of the US visa of his political ally, Senator Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa.

Several Cabinet members and lawmakers expressed opposition to the repeal, saying it may compromise national security and dampen ties with the US.

Besides strategic capabilities gained from joint military exercises, the Armed Forces of the Philippines also received crucial intelligence and surveillance assistance from US troops stationed locally to help combat terrorism and insurgency.

Regular US naval patrols and engagements with Filipino counterparts are seen as a deterrent against China's expansionist plans in the West Philippine Sea.

Don't swing toward China

Kalikasan said the VFA's repeal "should not be a precursor towards a full-blown China-oriented Philippine foreign policy. We challenge President Duterte to apply the same might that he used in ending the VFA to asserting our sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea and rejecting the debt traps of China."

Duterte's so-called independent foreign policy has been characterized by occasional rants against the US and favorable policies and rhetoric toward China. He has opened the Philippines to Chinese debt-financed big ticket projects, including the controversial Kaliwa Dam project in Rizal and Quezon provinces, flagged by environmental activists as a hazard to the Sierra Madre ecosystem.

"The VFA's termination is a step towards exacting justice for all the environmental crimes that the US government has brought to the country. Without the VFA and other unfair agreements, the country is in a better position to craft an independent, peaceful, and pro-environment foreign policy," Kalikasan said.

The VFA's termination takes effect 180 days after official notice was served to the US government on Tuesday. – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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