Star Bulletin File
In May 1998, decontaminated projectiles were released in crates as recyclable scrap metal as part of operations at the military’s chemical weapons disposal plant at Johnston Atoll.
Johnston Atoll: The end of an era
After years of use by the U.S. military, the remote atoll is reverting to the wild
By Gregg Kakesako
JOHNSTON ATOLL — After nearly seven decades of military control, these four small Pacific islands are slowly going to the birds.
By next summer almost all of the man-made structures will be gone. Even the 9,000-foot runway, which dominates the main island of Johnston Atoll, will be closed — even for emergency use — because it will be too expensive to operate.
The only inhabitants will be 20 species of migratory seabirds, 315 species of fish, 34 species of coral, as well as green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals.
There are no longer armed guards patrolling the main island. The high-security fences that surrounded everything — including munition bunkers and chemical weapons disposal incinerators — are gone. The incinerator’s two red-and-white smokestacks are no longer a dominant feature on the south end of the island.
Gary McCloskey, site manager for the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System, said it took the Army two years to build the two-story, 80,000-square-foot facility that housed the incinerators, testing laboratories and control centers, “and only two months to demolish it.”
Last month, the plant was destroyed as the Army prepared to leave.
Yesterday, with nearly 100 current and past civilian workers looking on, McCloskey unveiled a plaque on southwest Johnston Island before a 3-foot coral plateau. That coral cap, covering more than 50,000 square feet, is the only reminder of the United States’ first chemical weapons disposal facility — now eradicated and the site cleaned up.
The only remaining task falls to the U.S. Air Force, the landowner since 1948, whose job will be to return Johnston Island — about 2 miles long and a quarter-mile wide — to a near-pristine state.
Johnston Atoll, near the center of the northern Pacific 825 miles southwest of Honolulu, has been a national bird sanctuary since 1926. However, in 1934, under an executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the military began sharing the atoll with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Our job is to monitor the wildlife resources there,” said Don Palawski, refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Pacific Remote Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “That allows them to focus on their main mission.”
Since World War II the Pentagon’s attention has centered on Johnston Island, which, through dredging and fill, has grown to 625 acres from 46. The atoll consists of a 9-mile reef and two modified natural islands: Johnston and Sand. Johnston Island has been a mid-Pacific refueling and supply center, a nuclear atmospheric test site and, more recently, the home of the Army’s chemical weapons disposal system.
Not only was Johnston enlarged, the Navy added two new islands to the atoll: North (Akau) with 25 acres and East (Hikina) with 18 acres. Twelve acres were added to Sand Island, enlarging it to 22 acres.
Carla Heck, who heads the civilian contractor razing the buildings on Johnston, reads a plaque marking where an incinerator once stood.
Three years ago the last of 4 million pounds of bombs, rockets, mines, mortars and explosives were destroyed. At one time Johnston Atoll held 6.6 percent of the nation’s stockpile of chemical weapons — 412,000 different types of explosives. Automated equipment disassembled the munitions, removed the explosive components and drained the chemical agents. The chemical agents and the explosives were then incinerated.
Waste was disposed of on Johnston or shipped to the U.S. mainland, according McCloskey, who managed the disposal for 13 years.
The incinerators were built in 1985 after Congress mandated that the Army destroy all of its chemical weapons — mainly mustard and nerve agents — which had been stockpiled on Johnston since 1971. When the munition disposal began on June 30, 1990, it became the United States’ first chemical weapons disposal facility. The Army spent $120 million a year and destroyed its last lethal batch Nov. 29, 2000.
More than $412 million was set aside for the Army to clean up the disposal site.
“They did a very good job,” said Palawski. “They were responsible.”
Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Hostetter said the remaining 150 buildings — desalination and power plants, barracks and living quarters, bowling alley, outdoor theater, mess hall, gymnasium, library and post office — will be torn down by June. Seventy concrete bunkers and a three-story command center will remain.
“We’re not sure what we plan to do,” Pawlowski said. “A lot depends on the Air Force. We’re waiting to see what they plan to do.”
One of the major problems still facing the Air Force stems from the nuclear atmospheric tests in the 1960s. The accidental explosion of a Thor missile in 1962 contaminated a small portion of the island with plutonium oxide.
Carol Gaudette, Johnston Atoll manager for the Air Force, said that $28.4 million has been set aside for environmental cleanup and another $24.3 million for demolition work. She estimated that the Air Force cleanup will be completed by June.
Johnston Atoll timeline
A historic look at the atoll:
- Sept. 2, 1796: Accidentally discovered by Capt. Joseph Pierpoint when his ship, the American brig Sally, ran aground.
- 1856: Claimed by the United States to harvest guano (seabird excrement) for use as fertilizer. Mined until deposits depleted in 1890.
- 1858: Annexed by both the United States and Kingdom of Hawaii.
- 1926: Designated as a federal bird refuge.
- 1934: President Franklin Roosevelt places atoll under Navy control.
- 1941: Shelled by Japanese after the Pearl Harbor attack.
- 1948: Placed under U.S. Air Force control.
- 1950s and 1960s: Used for atmospheric nuclear testing.
- 1971: Army starts to stockpile 6.6 percent of its chemical weapons, moving them from Okinawa under Operation Red Hat.
- 1985: Congress orders disposal of all stockpiled chemical agents and munitions. Construction begins on incineration plant. Target: 2004.
- June 30, 1990: Johnston Atoll weapons destruction operations begin.
- January 1993: A burster charge or booster cup of 105 mm artillery shell ignites, but no World War I-era mustard gas contained in shell is released. No injuries.
- March 23, 1994: Accidental release of lethal nerve gas GB, or sarin. EPA fines Army $122,000.
- Nov. 19, 1994: A 6-foot rocket drained of chemicals explodes. No leaks reported.
- January 1995: A U.S. General Accounting Office report criticizes program’s costs.
- February 1995: Army requests 10-year extension of EPA permit; granted in March.
- Nov. 29, 2000: Destruction operations end. More than 4 million pounds destroyed, involving 400,000 rockets, projectiles, bombs, mortars, containers and mines.
- April 12, 2001: U.S. Army Chemical Activity Pacific closes. Cleanup begins.
Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army