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Euphoria: It is not the manner in which it will be destroyed that matters: it is the result that matters

Personally I think we'll turn the lush green Earth into the likeness of her sister planet Venus eventually, though

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Transcript: Trouble in paradise

May 25, 2003

Reporter: Peter Overton

Producer: Lincoln Howes, Stephen Peters

A diver in Guam

The islands of Micronesia really are a Pacific paradise endless golden beaches, impossibly blue sea, carefree islanders but maybe not for much longer. The islands were right in the middle of the battle for the South Pacific during the Second World War, the battle that probably saved us from a Japanese invasion. Now, 60 years on, thousands upon thousands of war-time wrecks are sitting on the bottom of the ocean, and inside them there's a very dangerous cargo, just ready to cause untold devastation.

PETER OVERTON: Marvel at the unspoiled splendour of the Pacific while you can. Below the surface, a massive time bomb is set to destroy this island paradise. Sixty years ago, this was where the US and Japan fought their savage air and sea battles for supremacy in the Pacific. Hundreds of sailors and airmen were killed, their ships and planes sent to the bottom of the ocean. Down here, along with the souls of the dead lies the lethal legacy of that violent past.

SEFANAIA NAWADRA, ENVIRONMENTALIST: We were basically the stage for the Pacific theatre, and the protagonists came in, they had their war, and now that they've gone, we are left to basically live with the consequences of all those actions.

PETER OVERTON: Beneath these waters lie more than 1000 World War II wrecks three million tonnes of shipping, and they are just the ones we know about. Inside many of these rusting hulks are millions and millions of litres of fuel and oil. It's not a matter of if there will be a major oil spill here in Micronesia, it's when, and the potential for disaster is just astonishing. World War II wrecks are spread over a vast area, thousands and thousands of kilometres, from just north of Cairns on the Queensland coast right through the South Pacific to Japan.

SEFANAIA NAWADRA: What we need is to try and sit down and look at this as probably one of the biggest environmental issues in the Pacific at the moment, and one that we need to address.

PETER OVERTON: Environmentalist Sefanaia Nawadra is the man trying to make the world sit up and take notice. He and his team have begun the massive job of logging all the wrecks and assessing the risk of leaks.

SEFANAIA NAWADRA: So far we've identified close to 2500.

PETER OVERTON: That's staggering.

SEFANAIA NAWADRA: Yes, it is. It's something that, I guess, we haven't really tried to assess because it's something that we've been trying to ignore, it's a bit like an ostrich putting its head in the sand, I guess, until now, we don't have a choice. Things are starting to happen and we need to act.

PETER OVERTON: And there have been warnings. For 23 years, Lance Higgs has brought divers to Truck Lagoon where the Japanese suffered one of the greatest naval defeats of all time. It's a treasure trove for divers. Some ships carry tanks and aircraft. Evidence of life on board still lies undisturbed. Plates, gas masks, boots and even bottles of sake. But, along with the relics, this danger signal bubbles of oil and fuel bursting free of the wrecks.

LANCE HIGGS: From time to time here at Truck, we frequently see oil coming to the surface as a tank lets go or another part of the ship deteriorates or even sometimes divers' bubbles dislodge certain parts of the ship's structures that permit oil to come to the surface. Sometimes in small quantities and steady quantities for years at a time, others in big bursts that last maybe one to two weeks before they dissipate.

PETER OVERTON: Yet the warnings were ignored and last year, the worst-case scenario actually happened. The huge sunken oil tanker USS Mississinewa burst. Oil poured out, threatening the pristine Ulithi Atoll.

SEFANAIA NAWADRA: It was about two million US gallons, or about 10 million litres of oil there. If that had gotten out, it would have been something similar to what happened in Alaska with the Exxon Valdez.

PETER OVERTON: The Exxon Valdez as big as that?

SEFANAIA NAWADRA: Yes, it's something in that scale.

PETER OVERTON: Just imagine what the devastation could have been like. Ten million litres of oil swamping this beautiful archipelago. The Micronesian Government declared a state of emergency and banned all fishing a near fatal blow to a community that relies on the sea for its survival.

SEFANAIA NAWADRA: Imagine all supermarkets in the city being closed for three months, because that's basically what happened in Ulithi when they had the spill. They couldn't go out and fish in the lagoon for three months, and had to find alternative ways of finding food for living and just carrying on with life.

PETER OVERTON: The Mississinewa went down in November 1944 when it was attacked by a Japanese suicide submarine. But under international law, the United States is still responsible for the tanker and its cargo of 10 million litres of oil.

COMMANDER JOHN CARTER: It is certainly a large amount of fuel and certainly it would be a very difficult task, if it had been released all at one time, to protect the environment and the people who live there.

PETER OVERTON: Faced with an environmental catastrophe matching the Exxon Valdez, the Americans acted just in time. That's the hull of the boot, is that right? In February, USS Salvor arrived off Ulithi Atoll with orders to stop the spill and recover Mississinewa's oil. Commander John Carter was in charge of the $6 million operation.

COMMANDER JOHN CARTER: The process itself is actually relatively simple in nature. We essentially mount a flange, use a special drill to drill through the bottom of the hull, connect up a pump and pump out the fuel oil. It's relatively that simple.

PETER OVERTON: It took almost a month, but Commander Carter and his crew managed to pump the tanker dry and save Ulithi, for the moment, at least. What do you do with 10 million litres of fuel oil?

COMMANDER JOHN CARTER: Well, the 10 million litres of fuel oil there will be recycled in Singapore. Certainly if the Navy could sell that back to recoup some costs of the operation, that would certainly be to their benefit.

PETER OVERTON: That's cold comfort for the people of Micronesia. Sefanaia Nawadra fears this is just the beginning. Next time it could be much, much worse.

SEFANAIA NAWADRA: I guess it's more a case of when it happens, rather than if it happens, because these vessels have been down there for 60 years. Another Mississinewa is bound to happen because there's 157 tankers that we've identified so far about the same size and having the same cargo as the USS Mississinewa.

PETER OVERTON: If they leaked, what impact would it have?

SEFANAIA NAWADRA: It would have almost catastrophic impacts on some of these islands. Basically the islands aren't geared up to respond to a spill of that magnitude. It's just beyond any of the capabilities that any even some of the bigger countries would have.

PETER OVERTON: Here in Ulithi, the threat has passed, but the people of this entire region now find themselves at the centre of an international standoff. The Americans insist that the Mississinewa's oil salvage does not pave the way for a total clean-up. Just who is responsible? Well, it seems until there's another disaster, no-one is prepared to take any action whatsoever.

COMMANDER JOHN CARTER: Who is responsible for the wrecks? Certainly I would not know, and that's not a question that I can answer.

SEFANAIA NAWADRA: Under international law, any naval vessels still remain the property of the flag state or whichever state owned the vessel when it went down basically the Japans and US and any other country that owns naval vessels that are down in the Pacific.

PETER OVERTON: In Truck Lagoon, all the sunken vessels are Japanese, but so far it's a case of out of sight, out of mind. It took until March this year for the Japanese to even acknowledge that a problem existed, but, like the Americans, they refused to commit themselves to a long and expensive mass clean-up.

Is there a need to do it, considering what you've seen in recent weeks?

COMMANDER JOHN CARTER: Is there a need to, on an ideal world basis, to pump all the ships that have gone down, that have fuel in them, out, so the environment is safer? Certainly one could argue that case, but, you know, whose responsibility those fall onto, certainly that's not for me to conjecture.

PETER OVERTON: You wouldn't be willing to speculate, have a personal view?

COMMANDER JOHN CARTER: Certainly I have personal views, but I am not in a position to state those.

SEFANAIA NAWADRA: I guess the final consideration should be the ways of life of people who are here because they did suffer quite a lot during the war and they shouldn't be expected to suffer more from the consequences of something that wasn't any of their doing, and it's their way of life, and they are entitled to keep it.

PETER OVERTON: Sixty years ago these waters were the scene of a bloody chapter in world history. Now a new disaster looms, one which threatens the very existence of Micronesia and its people, one that so far the world has ignored ...

SEFANAIA NAWADRA: I think for me it's not really an issue of if we succeed, I think I have to succeed because it's a real problem for us in the region. I guess it's imperative that we try and raise this as an issue that the world takes notice of.
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