SAN JOSE ISLAND, Panama -- Even as the United States presses for the rapid destruction of chemical weapons in Syria, a dispute lingers over unexploded chemical munitions that U.S. soldiers left on a Panamanian island more than 60 years ago.
Panama has pressed the United States for decades to remove them, and now it’s optimistic that the Obama administration has agreed.
But the administration itself is less definitive about whether an agreement has been struck to clean up the ordnance that litters San Jose Island, 60 miles into the Pacific from Panama City, the nation’s capital.
The World War II-era chemical munitions are known to include phosgene and mustard gas, and may include other toxic chemical agents. From 1945 to 1947, a contingent of U.S. soldiers tested chemical weapons on the then-deserted island, leaving behind at least eight unexploded 500- and 1,000-pound bombs.
A decade ago, the U.S. government offered to train Panamanians to clean up the mess as long as Panama released the United States from liability. Panama rejected the offer, demanding that the Pentagon itself remove and dispose of the toxic munitions.
Today, as the U.S. government presses Syria to destroy its chemical weapons under threat of military action, Washington may be showing more flexibility in its offer to Panama for cleaning up San Jose Island, a tropical bastion of unspoiled beaches and wild pigs that’s been the setting for several episodes of the CBS reality show “Survivor.”
The Pentagon will send a team later this year to survey the part of the island where chemical munitions are known to exist, Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez Fabrega said in an interview. Another team will dispose of the canisters next year, he added.
“I have a firm commitment from the United States,” Nunez Fabrega said.
In May, Panama formally requested – through the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body based in The Hague, Netherlands, whose inspectors now are overseeing the destruction of Syria’s arsenal – that the United States remove eight chemical bombs found there in a 2002 survey.
The Obama administration declined to say whether the outlines of an agreement have been reached.
“The U.S. government is reviewing Panama’s request concerning the munitions on San Jose Island and is committed to resolving this issue in a timely manner,” said Jennifer D. Elzea, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
For the owners of the private, largely virgin island among the Las Perlas Archipelago, news that a cleanup may be imminent brings joy.
“Why it took so long or anything like that, it doesn’t matter. We’re excited that it’s going forward,” spokesman John Zima said. “The Americans are living up to their obligations. They are actually doing the right thing.”
San Jose Island, with an area around 17 square miles, is three times larger than Key West in Florida and bigger than some island nations in the South Pacific. Girdled by a rugged, rocky shoreline with more than 50 beaches, the island is home to thousands of deer and wild pigs.
Zima said news reports from the 1940s indicated that around 200 U.S. soldiers were dispatched there to conduct chemical warfare testing.
According to a 1988 U.S. Army book, “The Chemical Warfare Service: From Laboratory to Field,” U.S. soldiers came to the island to assess “chemical warfare weapons under tropical conditions.”