Kalama (Johnston Atoll) Profile
These small islands were named by the captain of the Hawaiian schooner Kalama and annexed to the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1858 by proclamation of Kamehama IV. The islands were quietly and intermittently inhabited until 1934, when US President Franklin D. Roosevelt placed the islands under the “control and jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Navy for administrative purposes.”
What followed for Kalama Atoll (or Johnston Atoll, as the US Army calls it) is a special case of intense, long-term hazardous abuse. The entire Pacific has historically been an expendable zone for the US. military and continues to be with the construction and operation of the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS).
During World War II, Kalama Atoll was one of the busiest military airport terminals in the
Pacific theatre. In the late 1950s and early 60s, the islands were used for nuclear tests and
anti-satellite missile tests. The first nuclear bombs to be exploded in the stratosphere by the
US were off Kalama in 1958. In 1962 two Thor missiles burst into flames on the launch
pad scattering plutonium all over the atoll and into the sea. Plutonium clean-up of
contaminated soils is expected to cost $15 million. In addition, there is an undetermined
amount of plutonium in the lagoon (Alailima, 1995).
In 1971, 41 acres of land on the southwest shore of Kalama Atoll were set aside for use by
the Army as a chemical agent and munitions storage area. In that same year the chemical
weapons stockpile from Okinawa, Japan (Operation Red Hat), was moved to Kalama
(Alailima, 1995). The original plans to move the weapons to Umatilla Army Depot in
Oregon were scrapped due to public opposition and political pressure. Congressional
legislation was passed (PL 91-672) which prohibited the transfer of nerve agent, mustard
agent, agent orange and other chemical munitions to the 50 US states.
Early in 1972, 22,000 55-gallon drums of agent orange were moved from Vietnam to
Kalama. These drums were removed from the atoll in 1977 and incinerated at sea aboard
the Dutch ship Vulcanus. However, due to spills and leaks an estimated 250,000 lbs. of the
agent have contaminated the underlying soils. Surface water is believed to be transporting
these contaminants off site affecting nearshore sediments and lagoon fish. In February
1986, the Fish and Wildlife Service identified Kalama as one of one of 10 national wildlife
refuges in the US needing immediate cleanup (Alailima, Nerve Gas 1996).
Kalama Atoll has been subjected to over 60 years of continuous US military occupation and
administration. It has been used for all kinds of military activities, including biological
warfare studies, nuclear testing, missile testing, anti-satellite weapon deployment and
chemical weapons. With the past still very much present in the minds of many Pacific
Islanders, it was not surprising that the military’s announcement to build an incinerator at
Kalama in the early 1980s triggered widespread opposition. Despite this opposition from
Pacific Islanders, the Army was awarded a ten-year permit to construct and run the system
in 1985. Construction of the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS)
began in 1987. Pacific outrage came to a head in 1989 with the US announcement that
100,000 munitions would be transported from Germany to Kalama. Pacific nations felt
betrayed by the move because, according to the Army’s 1983 Final Environmental Impact
Statement (FEIS) there was to be no additional transportation of chemical weapons to
JACADS (Alailima, Nerve Gas 1996)
As a prototype for incinerators to be built in the continental US, JACADS has been a poor
model. It has functioned less than 50% of its scheduled operating time since operation of
the facility began. Plant shut downs for long periods of time have been a result of
countless problems, including three live nerve agent releases, explosions and fires in the
furnace kilns, equipment failures and parts melt down. In March 1995, the EPA fined JACADS $122,300 for three violations of its federal hazardous waste permit including the release of nerve agent which exceeded allowable limits (Common Sense, 1995). The
concerns of Pacific Islanders seem confirmed.
There is a widespread belief among Pacific Islanders that the US continues to cling to an
outmoded view of the Pacific Ocean as a vast, empty region where hazardous materials can
be disposed of without serious consequences to people and environment. It is a view
entirely at odds with the growing social, political and economic realities of today’s world as
well as with the current understanding of how the ocean environment serves to unite rather
than separate us. These emerging perceptions confirm the indigenous perspective of the
Pacific Ocean as a life-giving force.
Physical events in any one place in the Pacific, however remote, potentially affect lands and peoples thousands of miles away. What happens on Kalama Atoll has the potential to affect Hawai’i, 717 miles away, and has a greater potential to affect the 50,000 residents of the Marshall Islands, which are downwind from the incinerator. The ocean waters are in constant motion and are subject to winds and currents circulating throughout the Pacific. The near surface microlayers of the marine waters are rich with biogenic materials that serve as a food source for many commercially important fish and shellfish. Contamination of the Pacific waters threatens the well-being of the indigenous peoples who live closest to it and depend upon on it for food and economic sustenance (Otaguro, 1991). Emissions of dioxins, heavy metals and other contaminants from the nerve gas incinerators concentrate in the sea surface microlayer and have a detrimental effect upon the populations of dependent species, particularly on the highly migratory marine life. It is a catastrophe which will take place slowly over time and is likely to be ignored until too late (Alailima, 1995).
Johnston Atoll, the Pacific Islands and the US state of Hawai’i constitute a part of the
world populated by indigenous peoples who have been colonized, experimented with and
dumped on since the 19th century. European nations began this process and the US and
other nations, most notably France with its most recent nuclear testing, continue destroying
the environment and people of the Pacific. Clearly, environmental injustice has been an
historic phenomenon in this part of the world and continues to be. Despite protests from
the Pacific Forum (representing fifteen Pacific Island nations, including Australia and New
Zealand), the Pacific Asia Council of Indigenous Peoples, the Pacific Council of Churches,
the Pacific Island Association of Non-Governmental Organizations and many other groups
and organizations, the Army continues its flawed operations at JACADS. It is incumbent
upon the US to apply all its environmental laws to Johnston Atoll, which is often exempted
because it is not a state.
“Pacific Islanders need to bridge not only the economic and racial divide in environmental
injustice, but to extend across a cultural-cosmological and political divide as well. We are
an ocean people. We see her differently. The ocean is the great connector rather than
divider of us. She is the amniotic fluid from which all life is birthed, not the cesspool for
humanity. She is as sacred as land, sky, air and all living creatures,” says Poka Laenui, President of the Pacific Asia Council of Indigenous Peoples.
“Environmental safety standards and participation practices are applied only within US
territorial limits. Thus, Pacific Islanders beyond US jurisdictional boundaries, although
affected by polluting activities, are not consulted prior to potentially devastating conduct.
We suffer environmental injustice at an international level without any adequate forum of
Currently, Johnston Atoll is a part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which was proclaimed by President George W. Bush on January 6, 2009.
Source: excerpted from Chemical Weapons Disposal and Environmental Justice by Suzanne Marshall PhD., published by the Kentucky Environmental Foundation in November, 1996, with funding from the Educational Foundation of America.
CIA Factbook link to more demographic, geographic and economic data for Kalama: