A restricted General Accounting Office report asserts that the return of former residents to the U.S. nuclear test site at Enewetak Atoll could still expose them to possibly dangerous dosages of radiation.
Representatives of the newly created government of the Marshall Islands accuse the U.S. government of "bad faith" for withholding the draft report from public circulation.
Between 1948 and '58, the United States conducted 43 nuclear weapons tests on the Pacific atoll.
The GAO report on the $100 million cleanup of the nuclear contamination has been passed around selectively within the government since May 8. Comptroller General Elmer Staats said in the report taht public release "would not be in the best interest of the government" because of current negotiations with the Marshallese.
At one point, the GAO report notes that "because of the uncertainty of the long-term effects of exposure to low-level radiation, it is possible that the people of Enecetak could receive radiation doses in excess of current standards."
It also reports that "Environmental Protection Agency sources" believe those standards will be lowered and in that situation "there is a good possibility" that "their doses could eventually be considered excessive..."
In another section, the GAO notes that EPA has asked that planting coconuts on once radiation-contaminated islands to be delayed, for fear that the copra produced would itself be radio-active beyond "acceptable limits."
The possibility that plutonium particles, entombed on one of Enewetak's islands, could migrate "to the surrounding environment" was also raised by the report, though the GAO authors said it "is not expected to pose a hazard."
The Marshall Islands government took office May 1, after voting for separate status from other Micronesian areas that once were U.S. trust territories.
On May 16, at the request of the Marshall Island officials, a meeting was held in Washington to discuss turning over to the new government any material "which may bear on the welfare of the people of the Marshalls affected by the tests."
Although the GAO report had been sent to several U.S. government agencies, including some officials attending the May 16 meeting, no mention of it was made to the Marshallese.
They heard about it two days later, and requested and received a copy from Ambassador Peter Rosenblatt, chief of the U.S. delegation for the Micronesian negotiations.
Yesterday, Anton A.deBrum, the Marshall's secretary of foreign affairs, said the original withholding of the GAO report was a failure to "deal in good faith".
Richard Copaken, a Washington lawyer acting as counsel to the new Marshallese government, said his clients "wonder what else is being held back and why."
Rosenblatt said yesterday that the report had "not deliberately" been withheld but that no one at the May 16 meeting "considered it newsworthy or important."
"When they mentioned it to me," he said."I immediately handed them a copy."
Complicating the problems over Enewetak, its safely and future status is the fact that during the last years of the U.S. trusteeship, the atoll leaders and their own lawyer, Theodore Mitchell, not the new Marshall Islands government, had worked out details of the cleanup.
Mitchell said yesterday he was "bothered that the GAO report was withheld," but his concern focused more on future health care for the atoll residents and compensation for lost land than on the long-term hazards that appear to bother the Marshall government officials.
"It will be up to the Enewetak people to make a decision on their own" about returning to the atoll, Mitchell said.
The two American lawyers representing diffferent Marshallese clients agreee and disagreed on some aspects of the GAO report.
Both for example, said questions about the ability of the Enewetak people to produce non-contaminated produce in the near future had to be settled before the size of U.S. economic aid to the new government could be determined.
They took almost opposing views, however, on the key question of whether returning Enewetak people would adhere to some restrictions placed on still radioactive islands in the atoll.
On Runit, one island in the atoll, the Defense Nuclear Agency which has run the cleanup decided to entomb plutonium and other radioactive soil and material from other islands. They will be mixed there with cement and water to form a slurry and covered over with an 18-inch cement cap.
Runit, itself, will then be marked as off-limits indefinitely to the returning Enewetak people since the half life of plutonium is some 24,000 years.
The GAO report calls Runits "a radiological contamination legacy on foreign soil" and says some agreement is needed to monitor the entombed island.
The Marshall Island officials said they worry that children and others may ignore the quarantine and visit Runit, Mitchell, on the other hand, stated his belief that "Runit will be a taboo island and children will be taught to stay away from it."
The GAO report and the Marshall officials point out that the current cleanup does not have any independent assessments. Mitchell, on the other hand, said that as the Enewetak people's lawyer he has retained several outside scientists to review data as it comes in.