U.S. Pressured To Clean Up World War II Chemical Weapons Cache Off Panamanian Coast

An almost seven decade old dispute between the United States and Panama over unexploded chemical munitions left by U.S. soldiers on a Panamanian island after World War II could soon come to a resolution – lending credence to U.S. pressure on Syria’s regime and giving Panama a new tourist destination.

Panamanian officials seem optimistic that the U.S. will finally make the expensive effort to clean up the leftover ordinances left on San José – an island that lies about 60 miles off Panama’s Pacific Coast – but Washington seems less than enthusiastic about the move.

“It might be an expensive clean-up that costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Larry Birns, the director of the Washington D.C.-based think tank the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, told Fox News Latino. “But it could be a PR nightmare for Washington if they don’t hurriedly take care of the problem.”

The problem has persisted since 1947 when U.S. soldiers in San José left behind at least eight unexploded 500- and 1,000-pound bombs after testing chemical weapons including phosgene and mustard gas. There are also reports that the U.S. tested both sarin and nerve gas on the island.

In the past, Washington has skirted Panama’s requests for clean-up or offered roundabout solutions, such as training Panamanians to clean-up the mess, which the Central American country refused.

Now, with the crisis over Syrian chemical weapon use and the U.S. hoping to firm up its long-standing relationship with Panama in the wake of the fallout with Brazil over NSS spying allegation, it appears that the clean-up could happen.

Following a Panamanian request in May to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Pentagon said it would send a survey team to the island and then deploy a disposal team next year, Panamanian Foreign Minister Fernando Nuñez Fabrega told McClatchy newspapers.

“I have a firm commitment from the United States,” Nuñez Fabrega added.

The Obama administration did not comment on the matter, but a spokesperson for the Pentagon told McClatchy that “U.S. government is reviewing Panama’s request concerning the munitions.”

The affair has drawn comparisons to practice-bombing missions on Vieques Island off Puerto Rico and the ensuing clean-up following the U.S. Navy’s departure in 2003.

Of the 23,000 acres (9,300 hectares) that the Navy began to use for target practice in the early 1940s, 4,000 acres (1,619 hectares) have been awarded to Vieques municipality; 3,100 acres (1,255 hectares) went to the U.S. Department of the Interior and about 800 acres (324 hectares) to the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust.

The Navy has so far cleaned 2,540 acres (1,028 hectares), with the operation expected to run through at least 2025 in one of the Navy's most extensive rehabilitation efforts, budgeted at some $350 million.

"The Navy considers Vieques to be its highest priority in the munitions cleanup program," said Dan Waddill, who is managing the process. "Vieques gets by far the most effort and the highest amount of funding."

There is no word on the cost of the clean-up in Panama, but analysts like Birns believe that the political benefits outweigh the price tag even as the U.S. government attempts to shore up its support in Panama after losing some clout in Latin America following the NSA scandal.

“The U.S. seems prepared to swap their relationships with Brazil and Venezuela for Panama and Paraguay,” Birns said. “Panama has had a most favorable relationship with the U.S. for decades even as the U.S. overlooks some of the corruption allegations leveled against [Panamanian President Ricardo] Martinelli.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.