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Playing war games with our environment

By Steve Bishopric - posted Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Shoalwater Bay (SWB) is located 70km north of Rockhampton and is adjacent to and part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine National Park and adjoins Byfield National Park.

SWB has survived as a biologically diverse and superbly beautiful coastal national treasure consisting of around 400,000 hectares; hundreds of kilometres of coral coast, beaches, bays and harbours, wetlands and off shore islands. Its pristine environment is a result of geographic isolation and until recently, only limited, high impact training, by the Australian Defence Forces (ADF).

The area is difficult to access and virtually unvisited by the local population who until recently believed the ADF provided the best caretaking option. Fishermen, yachtsmen, the ADF and National Park staff, all recognise the significance of this unique region. The 1994 Commonwealth Commission of Inquiry - Shoalwater Bay banned sand mining recognising “World Heritage” values and environmental importance.


Public sentiment began changing in 2005 after the Australian Government entered an agreement with the USA, which provided the Americans with long term access to and joint use of Shoalwater Bay Training Area (SWBTA), and to other Australian military facilities across the continent.

This agreement ties Australia to the rapid military build up taking place in the north-west Pacific, particularly in Guam, a US territory to our north. The Talisman Saber 2007 exercise is a result of this agreement; as part of the Australian-USA Joint Combined Training Centre.

Shoalwater Bay is one of the US Pentagon’s largest and most important training areas and bombing ranges in the Asia-Pacific region. There has not been disclosure of the terms of these agreements or what weaponry will be used in SWB or Australia generally

Research by the Shoalwater Wilderness Awareness Group (SWAG), into the history of US military training and bases in foreign countries reveal an appalling record. Serious environmental, economic, social and health problems have too often resulted.

The US military doesn’t have a clean slate when it comes to environmental and health protection in Guam. In 2006, University of Guam professor Dr Luis Szyfres identified that Guam’s environment may be causing diseases affecting local residents due to the US military using Guam’s small Cocos Island as a toxic dumpsite more than 50 years ago. In 1946, the Naval Station Guam was built on Cocos Island on the southern tip of the island and was used for the decontamination of US ships returning from service in the US nuclear test detonations in the Marshall Islands.

During the Vietnam War, chemical agents including Agent Orange were stored at Cocos. In 1968, military waste, including substances stored in 55 gallon drums, was dumped into Cocos’ lagoon. Later the US military blew holes in the outer reef to improve water circulation in an effort to clean the lagoon of contaminants.


While the dump is not longer operating, evaporation and wind have dispersed the toxic chemicals all over Guam. Dr Szyfres referred to a Government of Guam report which showed that, in comparison to the continental US, residents of Guam suffered from many diseases which were in epidemic proportions and that death rates were higher. This included nasopharyngeal cancer, which is 1,999 per cent higher in Guam; cervical cancer, 65 per cent higher; uterine cancer, 55 per cent higher; depression-suicides, 67 per cent; liver cancer, 41 per cent; diabetes, 150 per cent; Ischemic heart disease, 15 per cent; and kidney failure, 12 per cent.

Many other diseases were also recorded in extreme numbers. He cited studies by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the US Environmental Protection Agency, which presented concrete evidence that the soil and groundwater of Guam contains toxic chemicals, and that concentrations of the toxic chemicals are above their own acceptable levels. (For more information: this text is taken from Dr Zohl de Ishtar’s paper Military Expansion Explained: The Australia-Guam Connection on the Shoalwater Bay website.)

This pattern of military impacting human and environmental health is also reflected in Vieques, in Puerto Rico.

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About the Author

Steve is an internationally recognised potter and ceramic sculptor. He has lived and worked from his nationally acclaimed rainforest gallery in Byfield on the border of Shoalwater Bay Training Area, Central Queensland for 27 years. Through his sailing, community and academic contacts and lengthy research he has an intimate knowledge of the topography, environment, infrastructure, past military activity, and recent developments in joint military training between the USA and the Australian Defence Force.

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