During the arms race of the 1940s and 1950s, the United States tested nearly two dozen nuclear devices on the tiny Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific — including in 1954 the largest thermonuclear bomb the United States has ever detonated.
The impact of those blasts is still being felt today, not just among exiled Bikinians scattered between Kili, Ejit, and other Pacific islands after the radioactive fallout made their homeland uninhabitable. But it's also being weighed by policymakers in the halls of Congress and the Department of the Interior contending with how to make right the situation.
Until last year, Interior held veto power over how much the Bikini people could withdraw annually from the Bikini Resettlement Trust Fund, which was formed in the 1980s to take care of residents from Bikini who were exiled from their homeland following the nuclear tests.
But in November 2017, the Trump administration, through Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, handed control over the then-$59 million to the Bikinians.
But GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has been pushing behind the scenes — and will do so publicly today at a meeting of her Energy and Natural Resources Committee — for Interior to safeguard the money for future Bikinians. I reported the full backstory here.
Interior believes the fate of the money should be in the hands of the "people of Bikini,” Doug Domenech, assistant secretary of insular affairs at Interior, said in a statement late last year, “rather than be dependent upon policy makers in Washington.”
Meanwhile, Murkowski is concerned about the fact Bikinians withdrew $11 million from the fund within weeks of taking control of it. Interior typically budgeted between $5 million to $8 million for the Bikini community every year.
“Although I agree in with a principle in favor of local decision-making and share your desire to restore trust with local residents,” Murkowski wrote to Zinke in December, “I am also concerned, as I know you are, that the Department meet it legal and fiduciary obligations with respect to the expenditure of U.S. taxpayer dollars.”
Murkowski has since introduced legislation capping annual withdrawals from the fund at 5 percent of its market value. The senior Alaska senator keeps tabs on Pacific island concerns not only as chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees Interior, but as the lone sitting senator born in a U.S. territory before Alaska became a state.
Since 1982, Congress has appropriated a total of $110 million to relocate the Bikinians to other Pacific islands and to eventually resettle them in Bikini when radiation subsided on the atoll, which is part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Under both Democratic and Republican presidents, Interior has kept a watchful eye over the multimillion-dollar fund and approved the Bikinians’ annual allowance to make sure the interest it generated allowed it to last.
The issues has, to say the least, divided the people of Bikini:
- In August of last year, 15 members of the 18-member council of the Kili-Bikini-Ejit Local Government voted in favor of a resolution arguing the trust was never intended to last “in perpetuity” and the local government “has been handicapped in developing income-generating projects” without full access to the money. “The U.S. government should meet his promises to take care of us,” Mayor Anderson Jibas said in an interview. “I don’t think anybody should be in the way to prevent us from getting the money that can keep us going in our lives.”
- But some Bikinians share Murkowski’s concerns, and are worried the money will be wantonly spent without the federal government’s intervention. “I think about my kids: What’s going to happen to them in the future?” said Jukulius Niedenthal, a Bikini councilman. “There could be nothing for them.”
- Jibas counters by saying the purchases they are considering, which including two boats and an airplane, could be chartered for revenue.
- Jack Niedenthal, former trust liaison for the Bikini government for over three decades and father of Jukulius, argues the bulk of the money is better off where it was already invested. “Most of our investments was very prudently invested in the U.S. markets and international markets,” he said. “No kind of crazy schemes, like what they’re talking about now.”
In the background of the political fight, both stateside and in the Pacific, is climate change.
In recent years, the island of Kili, a third of a square mile in size, has been battered by high tides as sea levels rise due to the melting of polar ice thousands of miles from the tropics as heat-trapping gases build up in the atmosphere.
Jibas, the Bikinian mayor, said the local government is considering using the money to build seawalls and higher housing. The Bikini government, with the support of the Obama administration, asked Congress in 2015 to change the terms of the fund to allow Bikinians to use it to purchase land in the United States.
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