In December 1999, when the United States officially turned the Panama Canal over to the Republic of Panama, the historic transfer was praised as the beginning of a new bilateral relationship between the two countries. But since 1997, environmental and activist groups in both nations have claimed that the United States has an unfulfilled obligation to clean up the unexploded shells, grenades, and other munitions left behind by departing U.S. armed forces after decades of military training in the country.
"The United States has made little effort to clean up the explosives in Panama, and that has left a large amount of land too dangerous for human habitation and development," says John Lindsay-Poland, director of Latin American programs at the San Francisco, California-based Fellowship of Reconciliation, a nonprofit group that has monitored the environmental situation in Panama since 1993. A 1999 U.S. Department of Defense press release reported that some 3,171 hectares of land--approximately 2% of the overall land to be returned (and, Lindsay-Poland says, 8% of former military lands)--was not cleared of unexploded ordnance. Estimates of the amount of undetected ordnance lying on the ground or buried under the jungle canopy have ranged to as high as 110,000 or more pieces.
The Department of Defense takes the position that the United States has complied fully with its obligation to clean up unexploded ordnance under the Panama Canal Treaty. Says one department official, "The treaty required the U.S. government to `remove insofar as may be practicable all hazards to human health, life, and the environment.' To achieve that standard in a technically challenging tropical environment, the U.S. government conducted numerous on-the-ground studies and employed a practicality matrix to assist in making judgments concerning the most probable locations of unexploded ordnance that could be safely located and removed." The official says further that a joint inspection by U.S. and Panamanian representatives revealed no unexploded ordnance that could feasibly be removed. "Due to dense vegetation, limits of technology, and the need to preserve the environment and to ensure the safety of explosive ordnance disposal personnel, access to and removal of unexploded ordnance was not practicable in certain areas of the former ranges," says the official. …