U.S. Taxpayers Funding Destruction of a Pacific Coral Reef

MAJURO, Marshall Islands, June 22, 2011 (ENS) – The construction of an airport extension on the capital atoll of the Marshall Islands, required and funded by U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, is about to result in the destruction of a thriving coral reef.

The project, at the Imata Kabua International Airport on Majuro atoll, home to over 25,000 people, is also destroying one of the last picnic and recreation areas on the crowded atoll.

“The footprint of the extension does not include living coral, but the contractor, Pacific International Inc., plans to build a long access ramp in order to drag line dredge the adjacent coral reef to obtain the enormous amount of fill needed for the land reclamation,” says Dr. Dean Jacobson.

Dean Jacobson (Photo courtesy College of the Marshall Islands)

Dr. Jacobson, a coral ecologist who has taught at the College of the Marshall Islands since 2001 and is monitoring coral disease on Majuro, is leading the campaign to protect the reef.

“This coral reef has an unusual abundance of fish compared to most other lagoon reefs, including a spawning site where thousands of surgeonfish gather each month,” he says.

The project will fill in an area next to the western tip of the airport runway that is now part of the lagoon.

It will create open space at the end of the runway as a safety buffer, change the location of the road that parallels the runway, and improve security fencing around the airport. A runway extension is planned for a later date.

The project, designed to increase the margin of safely during emergency aircraft landings, could be completed by obtaining fill away from coral reefs, Jacobson says, by dredging from a barge.

But this alternative was not considered by an Environmental Impact Assessment of the project that Jacobson calls “flawed,” nor is consideration required by the FAA.

Reef drop-off next to the airport in the proposed mining zone (Photo by Dean Jacobson)

Ground was broken for the project on May 20 with a ceremony at the end of the airport runway.

The highest-cost construction project in the history of the Marshall Islands, the project is budgeted at nearly $16 million and is expected to take about 18 months to complete.

The Federal Aviation Administration is funding the project with a 95 percent to five percent matching grant, bringing to nearly $55 million the amount of funding the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program has spent on the airport, said Marshall Islands Ports Authority Director Jack Chong Gum.

“This is a milestone for the United States and Marshall Islands,” said Marshall Islands Transportation Minister Kenneth Kedi at the ceremony, “The Marshall Islands Journal” reported. “It’s an indication of the close relationship with the U.S.”

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a sovereign nation in “free association” with the United States, according to the Compact of Free Association adopted in 1986 and amended in 2004.

Under the Compact, the United States has full authority and responsibility for security and defense of the Marshall Islands, and the Government of the Marshall Islands is obligated to refrain from taking actions that would be incompatible with these security and defense responsibilities.

“We support these projects in the Pacific area because they make it safer for the traveling public,” said Ron Simpson, FAA Airports District Office Manager, based in Honolulu, who attended the groundbreaking ceremony.

Simpson was quoted as saying “The FAA is environmentally sensitive.”

Pacific International Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jerry Kramer said at the ceremony that the project is expected to employ up to 150 workers and inject as much as $2.7 million in taxes into the Marshall Island treasury.

Dogtooth tuna at the airport reef (Photo by Dean Jacobson)

Several barge loads of revetment rock imported from Nauru are already on site, off-loaded via a ramp built across the reef flat.

The relocation of a 200-ton crane onto the reef flat is expected soon, upon approval by the FAA.

Dredging of the coral reef may begin within weeks. This would be the second episode of coral mining since 2008, when Pacific International Inc. used a suction dredger to mine the coral reef adjacent to the Fire Station site, another FAA-funded project. In that case, the reef mining proceeded without EIA or public comment.

Dr. Jacobson objects that when he visited the site to take underwater photographs, Pacific International Inc. attempted to have him fired from the College of the Marshall Islands, where he is one of four members of the science faculty.

The threat to this mid-Pacific coral reef comes as an international panel of marine experts released a report Tuesday warning that the oceans – and particularly coral reefs – are much more severely damaged than previously realized.

Marine scientists from institutions around the world gathered at Oxford University under the auspices of International Programme on the State of the Ocean and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The 27 participants from 18 organizations in six countries produced a grave assessment of current threats. Oceans are unable to recover, as they are being constantly bombarded with multiple attacks, the panel said.

Click here to read a summary of the panel’s full report, which will be released in the near future.

Copyright Environment News Service,ENS, 2011. All rights reserved.