Times of Change in the Marshall Islands

The room was small, well-lit, and government blue-gray except for the floor, which was

Looking at a Modernist federal office building from the northeast. James V. Forrestal Building in 2006. (Wikipedia)

Looking at a Modernist federal office building from the northeast. James V. Forrestal Building in 2006. (Wikipedia)

highly polished government-white, gold flecked linoleum tile. A compact blue-grey table, six chairs and an incongruous soda machine humming away in the corner were the only furnishings.  There were no windows. My elation and excitement at having been summoned to the DOE, Department of Energy, Headquarters in the Forrestal Building in Washington D.C. was eroding to a sense of foreboding. I was the DOE contractor’s Pacific Operations manager and was thrilled to have been invited to brief the Pacific’s Marshall Islands Program. It was 1300 hours and a game was afoot.

To this point, everything had gone like clockwork. The afternoon flight from Honolulu, Hawaii landed spot on time in California and the middle-of-the-night nonstop commuter flight to

I walked around the Runit Dome (on Enewetak). It is completely unmarked. I would have heeded a warning sign, if it was there.' — Michael Gerrard

I walked around the Runit Dome (on Enewetak). It is completely unmarked. I would have heeded a warning sign, if it was there.’ — Michael Gerrard

Washington’s Dulles International was smooth enough to grab a few hours of sleep. A quick trip to the Dulles women’s room gave me cover to ditch the palazzo pants and cotton shirt and don the uniform; a blue power suit with a light pink silk blouse, panty hose, and matching heels. I was almost ready for my big day at Forrestal. Grabbing the bag with my newly purchased makeup, I colored my eyes, powdered my face, and painted my lips just like the sales lady at Ala Moana taught me. Throwing my tan London Fog overcoat nonchalantly over my arm and grabbing my bag and briefcase, I headed for the taxi line in full uniform. The taxi took a while but I used the time wisely writing notes to myself about things I did not want to forget. Amongst the notes on the radiological concerns at Runit Dome, the state of the program, and other worries, I wrote a reminder not to wipe the grease off of my lips with the sleeve of my suit jacket. I never wore make-up and the lipstick was driving me crazy- the first omen of the day ahead.

My arrival at the Forrestal building was inauspicious enough. I was met by matching retired Navy Captains. Impeccable in their suits—one blue, one black—they were charming and I

Aomon Island, Enewetak Atoll prior to the testing program. Enewetak was the ground-zero atoll for 43 weapons tests.

Aomon Island, Enewetak Atoll prior to the testing program. Enewetak was the ground-zero atoll for 43 weapons tests.

was charmed. I think they have a special course for ‘charming’ at Annapolis. The Navy, however, never wastes charm so there was a point. During a delightful lunch in the cafeteria, I learned that the Captains (retired) did not really want to know about the Marshall Islands Programs, they wanted to know about Enewetak, a specific atoll in the Marshall Islands.

Alert, now, I was still feeling competent and in control as they explained that the DOE Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environment Safety and Health had, regretfully, been called away unexpectedly. They were her replacements and fully authorized to act on her behalf. My mind wandered as they provided rickover-time-cover-01their curricula vitae.  Retired from Admiral Rickover’s nuclear submarine service, they were, no doubt, fully qualified and filled with disdain for contractors like me. A wonderful lunch followed by a delightful dessert was garnished by small talk to establish areas wherein we could relate to each other.  The clock struck 1300 hours. Right on the mark, we were off to the government blue-gray conference room where I was sitting and waiting to begin the Marshall Islands Program discussions; the point of my visit.

And so I sat and stared at my surroundings wondering what was up. Abruptly the door opened admitting my two Navy Captains (retired) each with about half a ream of paper or so it seemed. On top of both paper stacks, was my December letter to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy. Not to be outdone, I pulled my presentation from my briefcase and began the review. Before the end of my opening remarks, I was interrupted and re-directed to Enewetak. I finally got it through my thick skull that the agenda had changed and I would be dancing to a Navy jig. Enewetak Atoll is part of the Marshall Islands chain and is about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. The atoll’s forty islands surround a beautiful deep blue lagoon with a fifty mile circumference. Enewetak is also a legislative district of the Ralik Chain of the Marshall Islands.

I got right to the point as I explained that I was not comfortable with the short timeline for the Department of Energy’s exit from Enewetak. I told them all about my worry of weathered

Taro, elephant ear, growing in an irrigation pit.

Taro, elephant ear, growing in an irrigation pit.

diesel trapped in lenses in the soils and other contamination on an atoll with pits that grow Taro, a primary food source. I let loose with an impassioned plea for a full up safety and health audit prior to being forced to leave. The U.S. had, after all, detonated over 40 nuclear weapons on that poor little atoll between 1948 and 1958. I was eloquent in my criticism of the DNA’s, Defense Nuclear Agency’s, failure to maintain Runit Dome in accordance with its agreement. Runit Dome was the product of ‘let’s-get-this-place-decontaminated-quickly-and-get-out-of-here’ mentality from the late 1970s. Some DNA colonel had the bright idea of mixing over 100,000 cubic yards of material with cement and slurrying it into a crater from an old nuclear event then topping it off with 358 eighteen-inch concrete panels. DNA was supposed to routinely monitor and maintain Runit Dome and they had not, in my opinion, done so. Some of the panels had cracked and, even though the Enewetakese were not supposed to collect sea bird eggs from that area, they did.

They countered that the Marshall Islands had signed the Compact of Free Association in G46673791986 and, in their opinion, the Marshall Islands had no further claim on the Department of Energy. I disagreed, arguing the Enewetakese could not possibly have understood the potential environment, safety and health issues that were the legacy of that field station. The work day was drawing to a close in Washington, D.C. when the Captains (retired) pulled a formal document from one of their two piles of paper and asked for my signature. The document employed many words to state that The Enewetak Field Station was safe and ready to be returned to the Enewetak people of the Marshall Islands. I informed them that I would not sign such a document but I would inform my boss, the company’s president, and, perhaps, he might sign it. They explained they’d just find someone else to sign the release. I told them, I’d let them know what the boss said. It was not a friendly stalemate. In fact, no charm had been in evidence for several hours.

Shaking, I headed back to Dulles to return to the Pacific on a flight leaving at 2100 hours. I called the boss and explained what had happened including my refusal to sign the release. I received direction to return to Nevada; not the Pacific. Changing back into my palazzo pants and cotton traveling shirt, I was pretty certain I was now unemployed. Reinforcing myself with the thought that I had not betrayed my oath to maintain the ‘Public Trust’, I dutifully boarded a plane to Nevada.

The following morning, I could hardly surface from sleep to any definition of ‘conscious’ as the telephone in my hotel room rang with new direction. I was to head to the DOE’s Las Vegas Project Office, not the corporate offices. Oh great, I thought, public humiliation as well as termination. I wondered where I would work next as I pulled on my professional uniform. I was proud that I got up, dressed up and showed up on time. The company president was there as well as the Department of Energy Contracting Officer and the Project Officemarshallislands_fourseabirds Manager; the big guns of my world. A conference call was made to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy Office of Heath to complain about my treatment and to back my position. I was so certain my career was over it took a bit for me to grasp what was happening. They were defending and backing me. The system worked!

By way of an epilogue, my actions made no difference. The DOE Headquarters staff hired another contractor to evaluate the health and safety issues and they signed off on the release. Within two months of my big day at Forrestal, the Enewetak people were the proud owners of the former DOE field office. Now tourists climb Runit Dome and the people eat the eggs and the sea birds from that area.