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Lawsuit in Palau seeks to suspend work on US military radar site

AN/MPQ-64 A3 Enhanced Sentinel Radar System is the only 360-degree coverage air defense radar in the Army’s current inventory and features a 3 D X-Band phased array antenna that provides an instrumented range of 75 kilometers. (U.S. Army/Released)
September 05, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Palau’s Angaur state, home to about 140 people, is suing the United States and Palau governments and American military contractors for allegedly damaging the environment when clearing land for a U.S. over-the-horizon radar facility in the Pacific island country.

The lawsuit from Angaur, one of 16 states in Palau, also alleges that the compact of free association that governs the close relations between Palau and the United States was violated by work on the radar. 

It’s unclear whether the suit will delay the defense project, which the U.S. aims to complete by 2026, adding to its early-warning capabilities for the western Pacific as China’s military strength increases. Some Angaur people oppose the lawsuit and want economic benefits from the U.S. military project to continue.

“This was not an easy decision to make,” said Angaur Gov. Steven Salii of the decision to file the lawsuit.  He said he tried unsuccessfully for six months to find out information about the project and how it would affect the people of Angaur and Palau.

A Palau court on Aug. 2 denied Angaur state a temporary restraining order that would have halted work on the site until an environmental impact statement was prepared. 

The decision was on procedural grounds because Angaur state didn’t provide evidence of attempts to notify other parties in the case, the court said. Angaur state is seeking a reconsideration of that decision.  

The Department of Defense awarded a U.S.$120 million contract in late 2022 for construction of reinforced foundations and pads in Palau for “Tactical Mobile Over-the-Horizon Radar,” or TACMOR equipment, which provides greater range than line-of-sight radar. 

The radar project has two sites – for a transmitter and receiver – one in Angaur island in the south of Palau and the other in Ngaraard in the north of the archipelago.

Palau, home to about 20,000 people and located between the Philippines and Guam – a base for U.S. bombers – is one of three Pacific island countries including the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia that give the U.S. exclusive military access to their territories in exchange for economic assistance and other benefits under compacts of free association.

The lawsuit claims that the Palau government, the U.S. government, the companies hired to clear the site – Cape Environmental and Pacific Unlimited – along with Palau Environmental Quality Protection Board, allowed for the clearance of some 271,807 square meters (2.9 million square feet) of land in Angaur without an environmental impact assessment and required permits.

It says conditions on U.S. activities in its defense sites in Palau, under the compact of free association, were violated by the land clearance. Military activities, for example, are required to avoid interference with commercial activities, fishermen’s access to shoreline areas and adverse effects on the well being of Palau’s people.

Land clearance is “interfering with the access and travels of the residents of Angaur,” the suit said, while associated erosion is “damaging their reef areas and waters because of inadequate mitigation measures in places.”

The suit also claims that 1,869 tons of lead-contaminated soil and 125 drums containing 92 tons of bitumen at the site are exposing Angaur residents and the environment to harmful poisons.

“The people usually come here to collect land crabs or fish around the reefs here, but now they can’t,” said former Angaur governor, Marvin Ngirutang, during a visit to the site late last month.

Aside from halting work, Angaur state is seeking fines of $10,000 for everyday land clearance that was carried out without a permit and damages from military contractors.

The land for the radar in Angaur is privately owned by the Ochedaruchei clan. 

Clan representatives have previously said a leading figure in the clan only signed a lease agreement with Palau’s government because she needed money for medical treatment in the U.S. and didn’t know until the last moment how much land was needed.

Not everyone in Angaur agrees with the lawsuit.

The traditional chiefs of Ngermasech hamlet next to the land clearance works, the Ngaraeriud, signed a resolution opposing the case. They said it was organized without the knowledge of the people of Angaur.

Their resolution points to many economic benefits from the project such as jobs that paid higher than Palau’s minimum wage and a $1 million fee for Angaur state.

“All available houses in Angaur are rented out, so homeowners enjoy a steady income,” it said. “Foreign workers are patronizing the two retail stores on the island, so storekeepers are seeing a boost in their revenues.”

Adelbai Jackson Henry, former Speaker of the Angaur state legislature, said there is “absolutely zero damage” from the radar project.

“If the lawsuit results in freezing the project, unemployment will result, and a negative impact on the state economy will be realized,” he said.