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Marshall Isles: Home for US Waste. Atolls would get money, West Coast would get rid of garbage, but environmentalists are horrified

`THE official Marshall Islands seal will read: Waste dump capital of the world,'' a member of the Majuro Chamber of Commerce wryly joked at a recent luncheon meeting. ``Don't worry,'' someone rejoined, ``it'll be in Marshallese so no one will know.''

Residents are dubious about a plan to ship 10 percent of the West Coast's household garbage - 7 million tons a year - to these poor Pacific atolls. But $56 million per year could conquer their reservations.

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For environmental or space reasons, landfills across the United States are shutting down.

Enter the Marshall Islands. In March, the Marshall Island's Parliament approved a feasibility study for a ``nontoxic'' waste dump. And President Amata Kabua wants a feasibility study for a nuclear waste disposal site. (See story at left.)

In the past year, four other Pacific island nations have been approached by other US firms to set up various waste-disposal schemes. Each has been rejected due to environmental concerns.

Mr. Kabua said, ``We are alarmed by the rate of our [population] growth. And I certainly want to leave this government with enough money to go on. I don't want to leave it broke.''

This former US trust territory became semi-independent in 1986 under a Compact of Free Association. While it is sovereign and self-governing, Washington provides for its defense.

It is one of the fastest growing, most densely populated Pacific micro states. About 43,000 people inhabit 70 square miles of slender coral atolls. More than 50 percent of the population is under age 15.

Admiralty Pacific - a company formed by a small group of West Coast businessmen - could provide the Marshall Islands government with enough income to cover the entire annual budget.

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The benefits are compelling. But environmentalists are horrified.

``It's morally reprehensible. A developing country should not have to chose between profits or poison,'' says Lafcadio Cortesi of Greenpeace International.

Dumping one-ton bales of US garbage into typhoon-prone Pacific lagoons - which islanders depend on for food - is a recipe for disaster, critics say.

But before shipping, the waste will be spread out over 14-acre warehouses. Electromagnets and hired scavengers will pull out cans and toxic items. ``The process will be monitored by the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and Marshall Islanders. We aim to get it 99 percent toxic-free before it's baled,'' says Dan Fleming, president of Admiralty.

Household waste - batteries, paints, plastics, pesticides - contains toxic chemicals. G. Fred Lee, a landfill consultant and engineering professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology, questions the 25-year trash-to-soil decomposition scenario: ``Compacted waste could easily take twice that long.''

In the Marshall Islands, the dump site will have irrigation channels to catch any remaining toxic liquid runoff, or ``leachates.'' This liquid will be purified and burned or used as fuel. And the entire dump will sit on a double-lined clay and plastic liner (about 25 times thicker than a common trash bag) and eventually be sealed to encase the trash. After 25 years, ``when the bag rots open, it's basically decomposed into soil,'' he says.

``The liner will leak on day one,'' Mr. Lee says.

``As a rule of thumb, there are two 1-centimeter holes per acre from manufacturing defects. It's much worse in the real world. We're seeing stress cracks - one foot long rips - showing up within a few years.''

Admiralty officials say they recognize such environmental concerns.

``We will absolutely follow US EPA guidelines. In fact, the most stringent guidelines you can find will apply to this project,'' says James Thompson, chief executive officer of Admiralty Pacific.

Admiralty is hiring Radian Corp, a Sacramento-based environmental engineering firm, to begin a two month, $100,000 engineering feasibility study. If that proves positive, as expected, Radian has been pegged to conduct a $2 million, nine-month environmental impact study.

Admiralty President Fleming and Amata Kabua, chairman of the Kwajalein Atoll Development Authority, signed a 25-year exclusive development agreement last month - contingent upon a positive environmental report and KADA approval.

The regional US EPA office in San Francisco and the Marshall Islands EPA office have both told President Kabua they will review the $2 million environmental study when it's complete in about 12 months.

``We have told Admiralty our consent [to go ahead] will be based on a favorable response by the [Environmental Protection] Authority,'' President Kabua says. ``Consideration would be a lot easier if the US Authority thinks it's good, blesses it, and tells us that it's safe.''

Admiralty plans to supply waste late next year as fill for a causeway being built on a coral reef between the islands of Ebeye and Gugeegue in the Kwajalein Atoll.

Admiralty already has seven signed contracts for hauling 1.4 million tons of waste from small West Coast municipalities by June 1990, Fleming says. But he admits: ``It will murder us financially, but we'll probably have to dispose of that waste in the US. I don't think the first loads will go to Ebeye. We don't have enough time to set it up.''

Current engineering plans for the Ebeye causeway show shipments of Los Angeles trash alone would fill the causeway in less than a year.

The Ebeye causeway site, if approved, will give Admiralty a foot in door. Once the government becomes dependent on the revenue, critics say, it will be more compliant and less critical in approving new dump sites.

Professor Lee says it's possible to conduct an environmentally safe project. But the costs will be high. He says the costs may be too high for Admiralty to make a profit.

``Making money is the least of our concerns. Even if our assumptions are off by 100 percent, we'll still make money,'' says Fleming. Admiralty figures it can ship waste to the Marshall Islands for $22 per ton - three to four times less than it currently costs to truck city trash to rural US landfills.

Perhaps the final determinate of the project's success will be public perceptions.

Most islanders queried didn't know enough about the project yet to be strongly for or against it.

Sen. Tony deBrum, a leading local critic, says public opinion can be turned against the plan.

``The president seems to think that any project to raise money justifies itself. There's some support within Cabinet and Parliament. But the people as a whole will not support the project if it's explained to them. They are smart. We have had to suffer the brunt of nuclear testing. We have had enough of American garbage here.''

``Obviously, we've got an image problem,'' Fleming says.

In the US, Greenpeace plans to mount publicity campaigns in the cities where Admiralty is seeking waste contracts. But Fleming says he is undeterred.

``We know we have to keep this thing clean. Every environmental group in the world will be going over this with a fine-tooth comb. We'll be ready.''

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