Living la vida toxica
Text and Photos by Gina Mission

Lingap Clark holds a July 4th medical checkup for Cabcom residents, who may be suffering from toxic contamination resulting from the failure of the US to clean up its chemical wastes at the former Clark Air Base.

"e never asked to live on a toxic dump," says Roy Mendoza, a 21-year old Cabcom resident, at the July 4th launching of Lingap Clark, a medical campaign intended to extend immediate medical and social assistance to the toxic waste victims of Clark.

___Lingap Clark, while designed as an alternative celebration of the Filipino-American Friendship Day, reminds those responsible of the toxic legacy of the former US bases which, according to the People’s Coalition for Bases Cleanup (PCBC), has already affected people from nearby communities.

Mercury poisoning?

___Initially, PCBC identified 78 victims aged 3 to 70 years, of toxic poisoning in Cabcom. The campaign highlights the transport of these victims to the Philippine General Hospital and other hospitals in Metro Manila. The patients, according to PCBC chair Myrla Baldonado, have one thing in common: they have lived in Cabcom, where the drinking water has tested positive for mercury.

___The Cabcom Evacuation Center is a former motor pool of the US Air Force in Clark Air Base in Pampanga. Mendoza’s statement echoes the voices of the 375 family-evacuees in Cabcom who, since 1994, have lived in the area where the government decided to move them in after lahar inundated their place in nearby Porac, Pampanga.

___Most of the Cabcom child-patients are afflicted with Central Nervous System Disorder (CNSD) and cannot walk or talk. Some of them have leukemia. The older patients, on the other hand, have heart and kidney diseases, as well as various skin disorders like cysts and cancers and reproductive system diseases among women.

Other studies weigh in

___A 1998 Health for All study, conducted under the expertise of Dr. Rosalie Bertell, reveals that certain communities around Clark Air Force Base report conspicuously high and disparate levels of kidney, urinary, nervous and female system health problems. The study concludes that the high prevalence of these problems occurred in communities closest to or on the bases and highly contaminated sites.

___Jorge Emmanuel, in his 1991 paper, Environmental Destruction Caused by US Military Bases and the Serious Implications for the Philippines, links the contamination of drinking water with mercury to cause "birth defects such as severe cerebral palsy, mental retardation, weakness, visual loss, delayed development, spontaneous abortions, and neurological effects."

___Emmanuel’s paper further says that benzene could cause leukemia. Lead induces renal dysfunction, anemia, and neonatal mortality, infertility in men and spontaneous abortions with high doses of exposure, and developmental delay in children with very low doses of exposure.

We’ve got it bad and that ain’t good

___Reports from the World Health Organization and recent environment baseline surveys conducted by US firms at the former bases, says PCBC, confirm serious contamination at over 30 sites at both Clark and Subic bases. Preliminary water sampling in 1994 at Cabcom reveals concentration levels of oil, grease, and cadmium above the maximum permissible level.

___According to the environmental baseline study that was recently conducted by US firm Weston International at Clark Air Base, a total of 21 of the 24 locations sampled for water had at least one pollutant that exceeded drinking water standards. Some of these were Mercury, Nitrate, Coliform Bacteria, Dieldrin, Lead, and several kinds of solvents, including Benzene and Toluene.

___Specifically for the former motor pool area (now Cabcom), the Weston study says: "It appears that the petroleum contamination in the motor pool may have moved vertically down the soil column, resulting in possible groundwater contamination."

___As early as 1992, the US General Accounting Office (GAO) had acknowledged contamination in both bases at a worst-case level when it stated in its congressional report that "if the US applied US environmental standards, cleanup and restoration costs could approach Superfund proportions." "Superfund" sites refer to the worst of the worst contaminated sites in the US.

___Unfortunately, the US, says Baldonado, "has been smooth-talking its way out of their responsibility." The reason for this, she thinks, could be found in the Woodward-Clyde study on the presence of radioactivity in Subic, which estimates a cost of $3.96 million to remedy the Subic landfill.

A little military history

___Since 1898 until the closing of the bases in 1991, the United States maintained a military presence in the Philippines, occupying enormous tracts of land in the northern part of Luzon. Clark Airfield, for example, was originally only nine square kilometers smaller than the entire island nation of Singapore. The Subic Bay Naval Base was larger than the San Francisco Bay Area.

___At the end of the Second World War, the US began to industrialize these sites, building airfields, ship repair facilities, petroleum tank farms, and other facilities. In addition, large tracts of land were separated out for use as firing ranges for live ammunition practice. These activities generated and emitted hundreds of different kinds of hazardous materials.

___Says Ret. Adm. Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information, as quoted by PCBC: "The Navy used Subic Bay as a base for active military forces in Vietnam. Whereas, the Navy used Subic Bay as a base for combat operations in every sense of the word, we could not have sustained the naval presence that we did in Vietnam without the full measured support we received at Subic. I suspect that Subic has a much greater problem of serious contamination in terms of forms and volume of contamination."

___The Philippines, says Baldonado, has neither the financial nor the technical capacities to deal with the problem. "Bases of similar scope and size in the US cost $1 billion a piece for comprehensive investigation and clean up, which is a price tag the Filipinos cannot afford to consider," she adds.

Among the disbelievers

___Beyond toxic issues, Cabcom residents have to grapple with the more immediate concerns of what to eat in the next six hours. As Leopoldo Simbulan tells CyberDyaryo in Filipino: "It takes several years for the toxic chemicals to kill a person. If we don’t eat in three days, we will be dead."

Cabcom residents Leopoldo Simbulan and Giding Manalac: What toxic scare? Can't believe it, won't believe it.

___In fact, some Cabcom residents don’t believe in the PCBC clean-up campaign. "The issue is not about toxic. It’s about land. We have been drinking the same water since we moved in. How come we are still alive?" wonders Juanito Lipa (not his real name). Surprisingly, his two children, aged 2 and 4, have not been sick of any "suspicious" diseases. Their only sickness, which he admits has been recurring regularly, is cough and cold and occasional flu.

___When the Health for All Study came out in October of last year, it recommended the provision of clean drinking water. In response, Pampanga mayors ordered the distribution of clean water to the Clark Air Base area, including Cabcom. Teams were to be dispatched to conduct an information drive to help the people understand the danger posed by drinking contaminated water. However, neither water nor information has arrived.

___"They want us to move out of Cabcom so they can have the place all to themselves," Lipa alleges. He however could not name exactly whom he referred to by "they."

___Giding Maņalac, a Cabcom farmer, talks of land grabbing as the primary reason for what he calls as the Clark "toxic scare." "They want us to vacate the place so the Clark Development Corporation can entertain foreign investors who want to develop the area," he says.

Their daily bread

___Cabcom residents are involved in three main sources of livelihood: farming, retailing and improvised transportation system. Those engaged in farming, such as Maņalac and Simbulan, earn just "enough" to support their respective families. Enough being able to eat rice and vegetable, or dried fish, or if lucky, fresh fish for three times a day.

___Mendoza, who drives a wilir, (a bicycle with sidecar used for public transport) around Cabcom, earns at most P50 per day, minus the boundary, (the rent for the wilir) of P30, which is negotiable to P20 during "lean" days.

___Lipa, the store retailer, admits that his earnings can hardly support his family of four.

Syra, the victim of Cabcom pollution?

___That neither poverty nor toxic contamination provides a healthy environment for growing kids is evident in the case of Syra Tolentino. At three years, she only measures 1 foot and 6 inches, is very skinny, and can hardly walk. Her mother, Yolanda, reveals that Syra was only the size of a 500-ML soft drink bottle when she was born.

___"She is always sick," Yolanda tells CyberDyaryo, adding that sometimes she even wonders how her little Syra made it to her third birthday. Pale and weak, doctors at the Lingap Clark consultation say - after checking her overall health condition and running a general check up on her - that she only lacks proper vitamins and minerals.

___Yolanda, however, is not convinced. "All my nine children ate the same food when they were her age. How come she is the only one who is sickly?"

___"I don’t think her condition has anything to do with the food she eats. I think it’s because I conceived and gave birth to her in Cabcom while all of her siblings were not [born in Cabcom]. I think it’s because of the polluted environment here," Yolanda says.

___It has been eight years since the American servicemen left the country. It has been four years since the Cabcom residents have stayed in an evacuation center of abandoned morgue, rest house, and gym of the former US bases, as well as tents and makeshift structures set up by the Mount Pinatubo Commission. It has been quite a while that the evacuees have lived normal lives in Cabcom.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.07.08