Cleaning up after the Americans…

Walton Brown, former PLP Senator and current candidate for the PLP in the next general election, has recently written on his blog (and published in the RG) about the pollution left behind at the former US naval and air bases, primarily Morgan’s Point. In his article he argues that the responsibility for cleaning up after the Americans lies with the UK, who made the deal with the Americans in the midst of the Second World War. Essentially the British, at that time virtually the main opposition to the Nazi assault in continental Europe (I don’t think the Soviets or the Americans had at that time joined the war), desparate for military assistance and hardware to defend itself, made a deal with the USA to provide the Americans with land for military bases throughout the British Empire in exchange for much-needed military hardware and supplies (mainly naval ships for protecting supply convoys heading to UK ports).

The Americans were able to use this deal to position themselves for hegemonic power following the war, with these new bases providing them with a global presence which they used to their advantage economically and geopolitically. With the rise of what I consider the Third World War, the Cold War between the US-led West and the Soviet-led Eastern bloc (with various allies such as North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba, as well as Communist China, at least up til the Sino-Soviet Schism). Bermuda was an important location for the Americans in this brave new world, serving as a key defence for the US eastern sea-board during WWII and a vital role in the Cold War, providing a key base for surveillance of Soviet submarines in the Atlantic. One has only to look at aerial photos of the island during the Cuban Missile Crisis (these exist but are not easily viewed) to see how important the military bases here were, with rows of fighter jets and bombers ready for the feared ‘hot’ war with the Soviets. The bases also provided a crucial element in the Space Race with the Soviets, with the airport runway’s being designed explicitly to allow space shuttle landings and as a key tracking station for rocket launches (a legacy of which continues today, albeit now with the European Space Agency rather than NASA).

The construction of the bases themselves were not without controversy. The original plans called for the levelling of Gibbs Hill and the partitioning of the island in two, with the debris from a bulldozed Warwick used for landfill to create a single base stretching from the South Shore all the way to the islands of the Great Sound. The final decision to build in St. David’s resulted in the loss of approximately a third of our mangrove forests, destruction of a unique coral reef system (still unrecovered, with the fluid dynamics of Castle Harbour post-construction keeping the water column there full of suspended sediment, restricting coral growth), as well as the known loss of at least three endemic marine species (I believe all endemic fish who spawned or were found only there). Socially it caused the de facto destruction of the St. David’s society, with families being relocated throughout the mainland and the island itself firmly brought into the mainstream of Bermudian life, with the resulting destruction of livelihoods and traditions. The presence of the Americans in Bermuda also helped accelerate the destruction of Bermudian culture in general, with a creeping Americanisation which accelerated with their presence and has accelerated further with the development of satellite and cable TV.

Over the years of their operation the base areas were contaminated with various heavy metals, sewage, asbestos and hydrocarbons. One of Bermuda’s largest and most important caves, ecologically speaking, was turned into a combined cesspit and dump for oil, gasoline and various chemicals. This pollution is not restricted solely to the baselands themselves, but, through diffusion in the watershed systems around Morgans Point/Port Royal renders residents in those areas, at least those drawing water from the water shed there, exposed to various levels of carcinogenic chemicals. While these levels are monitored regularly, and well water is generally not used for consumption purposes anyway, it is still possible that the general health of communities in that area has been compromised.

Of course, there have also been benefits from the construction of the bases. While the contribution to the various war efforts (and thus Bermuda’s political and economic welfare) is debatable, the construction of the bases themselves have played a pivotal role in our recent history. Labour disputes over wages and working conditions between Bermudian workers employed on the bases and Americans brought in for the labour were a central aspect to the development of the Bermuda Workers Association, which, ultimately, served as the genesis of the current Bermuda Industrial Union and, by extension, the Progressive Labour Party. In addition, the construction of the airport positioned Bermuda in a way to capitalise on the post-war growth of mass tourism; later it helped contribute to our position for international business.

When the Americans left in 1995 they left their pollution with us. An attempt at negotiating compensation with them dragged on, and eventually the Government accepted a fraction of what was required (and were roundly criticised for this), which was used, nominally, for repairs to Longbird Bridge. Bermuda is hardly alone in this situation though, with the US facing calls for compensation from other countries which housed US bases (Trinidad springs to mind). The US refuses to clean up any of these bases on the premise that doing so for one would set a precedent and they would be liable to clean up all of their mess (one wonders what the problem with that would be?), claiming they cannot afford to do such (while spending billions on imperialist adventures, military technology and propping up multi-national corporations, as well as subsidising polluting industries and supporting dictatorships and apartheid regimes such as Israel). The Americans have only ever cleaned up one of their bases. This base, in Canada, was close to their border and it was argued that the pollution from it could affect US populations neighbouring it. As such, due to American lives being at risk, they acted. One wonders if claims of racism could be raised here?

For me, I hold both the US and the UK responsible for this mess. Ultimately the deal was made between the UK and the USA, not between Bermuda and the USA. The UK cannot shirk it’s responsibility by hiding behind a cloak of Bermuda being ‘self-governing’. They are still responsible for our foreign affairs, and were the ones who made this deal in the first place anyway. They need to either get the Americans to clean up after themselves or clean it up themselves. The Americans themselves shouldn’t need to be told what to do. They should do the right thing. They have no right to come and pollute our island and walk away. Friends don’t trash others houses; perhaps the Americans aren’t our friends?

Until the Americans do the right thing we, Bermuda, should take some steps to help encourage them to act in a civilised manner. As they wish to treat us as a dump, perhaps we should start dumping our trash at their consulate? Or store our sewage there? And the Governor, as representative of the UK, he should be treated similarly. And we should close our ports to all American military vessels, planes and ships, or, alternatively, confiscate them and sell them off to cover the cost of cleaning up their mess.

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3 thoughts on “Cleaning up after the Americans…

  1. I’m not American but I try to view things from a balanced perspective, but have you ever thought about how much America has given indirectly to Bermuda as well? i.e. IB and tourism? I’d say that the Americans have probably contributed and still continue to contribute far more to Bermuda’s economy than $40m or whatever it will cost to clean up their mess.

    No matter what political system you have in place there will always be class separations, so don’t blame the Americans for that either. You are also omitting the fact that it was the PLP who accepted the American settlement offer and they spent the money on other things. No surprise there, right?

    I agree that a lot of environmental damage was done, but this has been exacerbated by the PLP too. Tuckers Point? I’m not saying that you shouldn’t complain but I’d also like to hear you comment on the Tucker’s Point ordeal as well. I understand you are pro-PLP but you are strikingly similar to the RG in that you sometimes don’t give a balanced view.

    Happy Holidays.

  2. Hi Justin,

    I think I actually did cover the points you raised, in that I noted that the construction of the bases were key to the previous success of the tourist industry (in providing an airport), as well as laying the basis for our IB industry. I think an argument could be made that we (Bermuda) do a cost-benefit analysis to work out how much we profited from the bases in that sense versus how much damage they caused. One would also have to take into account multiplier effects and what we would have done if the Americans hadn’t built an airport (we most likely would have built one eventually, for example). So, yes, that is something that we would need to factor in.

    The ‘Americans’ in the sense of US corporations or private individuals no doubt also contribute greatly to our economy, but when I am referring to the responsibility of America or Americans in cleaning up after the bases I am in this instance referring to the US Government as it was them, through their military, which caused the environmental problems and are thus responsible. Not private corporations or individuals.

    I also noted that the Bermuda Government did conclude a deal related to the bases, but that I understand that was just for maintaining one of the bridges and not the complete clean-up of the bases. While it was the PLP that headed the Government at that time, it should be noted that the Americans left in 1995 and the PLP didn’t come into power until late 1998. I’m not saying that to absolve the PLP of responsibility here, but to note that the UBP weren’t exactly free of blame either.

    On Tucker’s Point I think I did post on that, but it’s been a while; I’ll need to check it out. My position on it though was that I opposed the SDO for it and I saw it as mostly bailing out a failing economic model.

  3. Pingback: Bermuda: military mess? · Global Voices

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