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14:16

Portugal: US base in the Azores linked to inflated cancer rates, environmental damage *EXCLUSIVE*

Portugal, Terceira Island
February 21, 2018 at 12:44 GMT +00:00 · Published

Inhabitants of the Portuguese island of Terceira in the Azores are growing increasingly worried by incidents of cancer and other serious diseases that appear to be afflicting them at higher rates than islanders in the rest of the North Atlantic archipelago. These illnesses are thought to be caused by a series of environmental hazards connected to the US military's decades-long use of the island as an airbase, according to several reports that have begun reaching the public's attention. Home to some 55,000 people, Terceira is one of nine islands belonging to the Azores archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean. Terceira hosts the officially-designated No.4 Lajes airbase, where the United States 65th Air Base Group currently resides under a tenancy agreement. The geographical position of the archipelago, midway between the US and Europe, was considered vital to US military operations in the past, particularly during World War II and the Cold War.Commonly known as the 'Atlantic's airstrip,' the primary mission of the Lajes airbase is to serve as a refuelling post in the middle of the ocean. It is the second largest storage facility outside the USA for the US Air Force after Guam (Micronesia). Lajes is able to provide base and en-route support for medical and mechanical emergency situations for aircraft belonging to the US Department of Defense and NATO, as well as for other commercial or military-authorised aircraft. Over the past few years, a series of environmental hazards linked to pollutants found in the island's soils and aquifers have been connected to activity at the airbase. Several areas are said to have been contaminated by waste, including from massive fuel spills, open air landfills and alleged weapons dumps, and even possible nuclear activity.Norberto Messias, Professor and investigator at the Superior School of Health, showed Ruptly a rock sample which he said points to the "pollution of the Lajes base and the consequences of its presence here." Referring to the rock sample, Messias stated: "this is a sample of residual hydrocarbons, sediments of hydrocarbons. Everything missing here in order to have usable oil is what remained in the soils after the spills and infiltrations."Messias, together with other members of the Department of Mental Health Nursing and Gerontology at the University of Azores, is currently carrying out a study which aims to show the impact of the Lajes airbase on local residents' health, and to establish if there is a definitive link between the contamination and higher rates of illness.Orlando Lima, a former employee at the US base on Terceira, was seen using x-ray and alpha particle detection equipment to analyse the soil at Pico do Careca [Bald Peak], an artificial hill built outside the territory of the US base, where bunkers once stood and where locals claim nuclear activity may have taken place. "The first time we were here, it was everywhere. The soil was dry. We had emissions of alpha particles everywhere," he said. Pico do Careca seems to report an atypical presence of radioactivity in the soil, to which some kind of past nuclear activity appears to be a plausible explanation. Commenting on the quality of the soil on Pico do Careca, Dr. Carlos Lima, a former regional health official and former Mayor of Praia da Vitoria, said, "it is called Pico Careca [Bald Peak] for a reason. I know many farmers who tried to plant something there and nothing was produced." He added: "well, in a land with such fertile soil as ours, where we sow anything and anything grows, I doubt that there wasn't something happening there that burns everything that seeds." The environmental situation in the island was first officially acknowledged in a confidential 2003 report commissioned by the US Air Force. This report, later accessed and published by local newspaper Diario Insular through two unidentified US sources, identifies "30 areas of concern" and explains in detail 17 major fuel spills that occurred at different locations - inside and outside the confines of the base - over the course of many decades. Six of the reported spills were ranked at Level Seven, the highest in a ranking of severity.A US study from 2005, also made public by Diario Insular, identifies 38 separate areas where both soils and aquifers show a high presence of hydrocarbons and heavy metals, including lead and zinc. In response to the report, the Azorean Regional Government commissioned a study to be carried out by the Civil Engineering National Laboratory (LNEC). This investigation, which focused primarily on aquifers and water-quality, has been criticised by locals and experts alike for not analysing a series of key metal substances, for not adjusting its parametric values to the analysed contaminated locations; and for not calling for decontamination as long as certain locations remained unused. Commenting on the report, Azores University professor Felix Rodrigues pointed to what he says is an absence of national laws that deal with soil contamination concerning certain substances. "We don't have legislation to say 'this soil is contaminated.' So we resort to [the relevant legislation of] Canada or the Netherlands," he said. "We have 'only' 50 times more of what is allowed in the most polluted areas of those countries. This is something very worrying," added Rodrigues, who is one of the most active voices on the island in trying to raise awareness of the environmental issues. Incidents of cancer (leukemia and so-called 'rare cancers', such as eye cancer and lung cancer for non-smokers) and other diseases and health issues (including dementia, infertility and cardiac problems) reportedly occur at inflated rates on Terceira in comparison to the other eight Azorean islands. This is especially true of the county of Praia da Vitoria, where the airbase is located. Local records show that although Praia da Vitoria comprises around 8.50 percent of the total Azorean population, the area alone accounts for 30 percent of certain cancers across the archipelago as a whole.Marcos Fagundes, a local resident, gave voice to the idea that a link between contamination on the island and higher local rates of cancer appears likely. "The more cancer cases there are, the more the population asks, why is this happening? Why at Praia da Vitoria are there roads that on one side, all houses have or had at least one case of cancer, and on the other side it's almost every other house. That is not normal," said Fagundes, who is a member of a civic movement that's aiming to take the issue - via petition - to the Portuguese national Parliament, and to demand the immediate decontamination of the island. Madail Avila, a Praia da Vitoria resident who was cured of breast cancer and whose parents both died of cancer, said incidents of the disease in Praia da Vitoria county seem unusually high. "It is a very big coincidence that there are so many cases of cancer within the same family and in the same geographical area as well, as all these cases are geographically located in the same area," she said.US officials declined to give Ruptly a comment on each of the accusations made by locals. In a statement, they said that would not give any further comment on the situation besides those made in a US press release published at the end of the last Portugal-United States bilateral meeting back in December 2017. There, the "current status of environmental issues on Terceira Island with regard to US activities at Lajes Field" is mentioned, with two "priority sites" identified (the Main Gate and South Tank Farm - a major fuel depository). The statement underlines the two countries' intention "to monitor the issues and encourage the technical experts to reach a conclusion on how best to proceed." No measures or conclusions have been made public since the statement was made.Ruptly also contacted the Portuguese government but received no response, however, on 28 February 2018, Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva made a statement to the Portuguese media claiming that there was an international misinformation campaign over the extent of contamination in the area of the Lajes base in Azores. The Portuguese Foreign Minister added the claim that the campaign was designed to "attack the tourism" on the island.The silence and apparent secrecy surrounding the treatment of the issue by public institutions and government organisations is another reason for the general dissatisfaction and growing alarm. The topic seems to be gaining momentum, as more information arises from reports deemed 'confidential,' and as local citizens, along with a handful of scholars and scientists, promise to continue efforts to shed light on the issues and speed up the restoration of the island.

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Description

Inhabitants of the Portuguese island of Terceira in the Azores are growing increasingly worried by incidents of cancer and other serious diseases that appear to be afflicting them at higher rates than islanders in the rest of the North Atlantic archipelago. These illnesses are thought to be caused by a series of environmental hazards connected to the US military's decades-long use of the island as an airbase, according to several reports that have begun reaching the public's attention. Home to some 55,000 people, Terceira is one of nine islands belonging to the Azores archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean. Terceira hosts the officially-designated No.4 Lajes airbase, where the United States 65th Air Base Group currently resides under a tenancy agreement. The geographical position of the archipelago, midway between the US and Europe, was considered vital to US military operations in the past, particularly during World War II and the Cold War.Commonly known as the 'Atlantic's airstrip,' the primary mission of the Lajes airbase is to serve as a refuelling post in the middle of the ocean. It is the second largest storage facility outside the USA for the US Air Force after Guam (Micronesia). Lajes is able to provide base and en-route support for medical and mechanical emergency situations for aircraft belonging to the US Department of Defense and NATO, as well as for other commercial or military-authorised aircraft. Over the past few years, a series of environmental hazards linked to pollutants found in the island's soils and aquifers have been connected to activity at the airbase. Several areas are said to have been contaminated by waste, including from massive fuel spills, open air landfills and alleged weapons dumps, and even possible nuclear activity.Norberto Messias, Professor and investigator at the Superior School of Health, showed Ruptly a rock sample which he said points to the "pollution of the Lajes base and the consequences of its presence here." Referring to the rock sample, Messias stated: "this is a sample of residual hydrocarbons, sediments of hydrocarbons. Everything missing here in order to have usable oil is what remained in the soils after the spills and infiltrations."Messias, together with other members of the Department of Mental Health Nursing and Gerontology at the University of Azores, is currently carrying out a study which aims to show the impact of the Lajes airbase on local residents' health, and to establish if there is a definitive link between the contamination and higher rates of illness.Orlando Lima, a former employee at the US base on Terceira, was seen using x-ray and alpha particle detection equipment to analyse the soil at Pico do Careca [Bald Peak], an artificial hill built outside the territory of the US base, where bunkers once stood and where locals claim nuclear activity may have taken place. "The first time we were here, it was everywhere. The soil was dry. We had emissions of alpha particles everywhere," he said. Pico do Careca seems to report an atypical presence of radioactivity in the soil, to which some kind of past nuclear activity appears to be a plausible explanation. Commenting on the quality of the soil on Pico do Careca, Dr. Carlos Lima, a former regional health official and former Mayor of Praia da Vitoria, said, "it is called Pico Careca [Bald Peak] for a reason. I know many farmers who tried to plant something there and nothing was produced." He added: "well, in a land with such fertile soil as ours, where we sow anything and anything grows, I doubt that there wasn't something happening there that burns everything that seeds." The environmental situation in the island was first officially acknowledged in a confidential 2003 report commissioned by the US Air Force. This report, later accessed and published by local newspaper Diario Insular through two unidentified US sources, identifies "30 areas of concern" and explains in detail 17 major fuel spills that occurred at different locations - inside and outside the confines of the base - over the course of many decades. Six of the reported spills were ranked at Level Seven, the highest in a ranking of severity.A US study from 2005, also made public by Diario Insular, identifies 38 separate areas where both soils and aquifers show a high presence of hydrocarbons and heavy metals, including lead and zinc. In response to the report, the Azorean Regional Government commissioned a study to be carried out by the Civil Engineering National Laboratory (LNEC). This investigation, which focused primarily on aquifers and water-quality, has been criticised by locals and experts alike for not analysing a series of key metal substances, for not adjusting its parametric values to the analysed contaminated locations; and for not calling for decontamination as long as certain locations remained unused. Commenting on the report, Azores University professor Felix Rodrigues pointed to what he says is an absence of national laws that deal with soil contamination concerning certain substances. "We don't have legislation to say 'this soil is contaminated.' So we resort to [the relevant legislation of] Canada or the Netherlands," he said. "We have 'only' 50 times more of what is allowed in the most polluted areas of those countries. This is something very worrying," added Rodrigues, who is one of the most active voices on the island in trying to raise awareness of the environmental issues. Incidents of cancer (leukemia and so-called 'rare cancers', such as eye cancer and lung cancer for non-smokers) and other diseases and health issues (including dementia, infertility and cardiac problems) reportedly occur at inflated rates on Terceira in comparison to the other eight Azorean islands. This is especially true of the county of Praia da Vitoria, where the airbase is located. Local records show that although Praia da Vitoria comprises around 8.50 percent of the total Azorean population, the area alone accounts for 30 percent of certain cancers across the archipelago as a whole.Marcos Fagundes, a local resident, gave voice to the idea that a link between contamination on the island and higher local rates of cancer appears likely. "The more cancer cases there are, the more the population asks, why is this happening? Why at Praia da Vitoria are there roads that on one side, all houses have or had at least one case of cancer, and on the other side it's almost every other house. That is not normal," said Fagundes, who is a member of a civic movement that's aiming to take the issue - via petition - to the Portuguese national Parliament, and to demand the immediate decontamination of the island. Madail Avila, a Praia da Vitoria resident who was cured of breast cancer and whose parents both died of cancer, said incidents of the disease in Praia da Vitoria county seem unusually high. "It is a very big coincidence that there are so many cases of cancer within the same family and in the same geographical area as well, as all these cases are geographically located in the same area," she said.US officials declined to give Ruptly a comment on each of the accusations made by locals. In a statement, they said that would not give any further comment on the situation besides those made in a US press release published at the end of the last Portugal-United States bilateral meeting back in December 2017. There, the "current status of environmental issues on Terceira Island with regard to US activities at Lajes Field" is mentioned, with two "priority sites" identified (the Main Gate and South Tank Farm - a major fuel depository). The statement underlines the two countries' intention "to monitor the issues and encourage the technical experts to reach a conclusion on how best to proceed." No measures or conclusions have been made public since the statement was made.Ruptly also contacted the Portuguese government but received no response, however, on 28 February 2018, Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva made a statement to the Portuguese media claiming that there was an international misinformation campaign over the extent of contamination in the area of the Lajes base in Azores. The Portuguese Foreign Minister added the claim that the campaign was designed to "attack the tourism" on the island.The silence and apparent secrecy surrounding the treatment of the issue by public institutions and government organisations is another reason for the general dissatisfaction and growing alarm. The topic seems to be gaining momentum, as more information arises from reports deemed 'confidential,' and as local citizens, along with a handful of scholars and scientists, promise to continue efforts to shed light on the issues and speed up the restoration of the island.

W/S Landscape on Terceira *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

M/S Orlando Lima, former worker at the US base on Terceira island, Azores, walking across field

M/S Orlando Lima, former worker at the US base on Terceira island, Azores [UPSOUND] (Portuguese): "The first time we were here, it was everywhere. The soil was dry. We had emissions of alpha particles everywhere."

M/S Lima operating x-ray and alpha particle detection equipment

C/U Lima operating x-ray and alpha particle detection equipment

W/S Lima operating detection equipment behind stone wall

M/S Lima [UPSOUND] (Portuguese): "We are back to 20.000"

M/S Lima [UPSOUND] (Portuguese): "This is not constant, it oscillates. Releases are never constant. We are now at 18, 20, 22,000, 20,000, 22,000.

M/S Lima [UPSOUND] (Portuguese): "And it's time to run away from here as we already stayed too long. 20,000 picocuries in alpha particles is already a substantial value."

SOT, Orlando Lima, former worker at the US base on Terceira island, Azores (Portuguese): "When we talk about alpha particles, we are talking about heavy particles, that are natural [correcting himself] -- that are not natural, that generally appear as a result of nuclear contamination."

W/S Pico Careca (Bald Peak) *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

W/S Landscape

M/S Felix Rodrigues, physics Professor at Azores University, walking along hallway

SOT, Felix Rodrigues, physics Professor at Azores University (Portuguese): "This is a hell that repeats itself on various islands that are occupied by the Americans. This is almost a 'scorched-earth policy,' where the problems accumulate and the local government doesn't react, the population has no capacity to take a stance, maybe as a result of scientific illiteracy, of lack of knowledge on the cause-effect relations."

C/U Rodrigues *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Felix Rodrigues, physics Professor at Azores University (Portuguese): "What we have is a series of locations with extremely high levels of pollution caused by heavy metals, hydrocarbons or PCBs."

C/U Rodrigues *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Felix Rodrigues, physics Professor at Azores University (Portuguese): "The heavy metals have serious effects on health. There are very high levels of lead in some zones: copper, zinc, molybdenum."

C/U Document

SOT, Felix Rodrigues, physics Professor at Azores University (Portuguese): "All of them are heavy metals that in certain concentrations can cause: sterility, cancer, arrhythmia and never-ending amounts of problems associated with an excess of these substances that tend to get into the food chain, and some of them are bio-accumulated. Therefore, we are facing poisons that are hidden under the carpet"

W/S Landscape

W/S Landscape

M/S Road sign

M/S Road sign pointing to base

M/S Cow in field

M/S Norberto Messias, Professor and investigator at the Superior School of Health, looking over commercial airstrip

M/S Messias

SOT, Norberto Messias, Professor and investigator at the Superior School of Health (Portuguese): "What motivated this study is the fact that we found in the data that was published referring to the 2007-2011 period, a higher number of certain cancers in the Praia da Vitoria area than in the rest of the Azores, especially regarding the rarer cancers, for example, eye cancer, with 33 percent of the Azores cases being in Praia da Vitoria, while the area has only 8.52 percent of the Azorean population"

C/U Messias *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Norberto Messias, Professor and investigator at the Superior School of Health (Portuguese): "What is missing here is to put all the pieces of this puzzle together. And this is what we will try to do on this first phase. We will try to locate geographically the families that had cancer. It's putting these pieces together, that will give sense to the story."

C/U Avila doing puzzle

C/U Madail Avila, Praia da Vitoria resident who was cured of breast cancer

C/U Madail Avila, Praia da Vitoria resident who was cured of breast cancer

SOT, Madail Avila, Praia da Vitoria resident who was cured of breast cancer (Portuguese): "I'm 34 years old and I lived my whole life in Praia da Vitoria, at the Juncal, right by the entrance of the American base. All my family lived in that area."

C/U Avila's hands *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Madail Avila, Praia da Vitoria resident who was cured of breast cancer (Portuguese): "Both of my parents died of cancer. My mum of breast cancer and my dad with a different kind of cancer"

C/U Avila *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Madail Avila, Praia da Vitoria resident who was cured of breast cancer (Portuguese): "When I was 33 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My mum had already been in the same situation as me and passed away on the same year that I was diagnosed with the same pathology."

M/S Avila *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Madail Avila, Praia da Vitoria resident who was cured of breast cancer (Portuguese): "It is a very big coincidence that there are so many cases of cancer within the same family and in the same geographical area as well, as all these cases are geographically located in the same area."

W/S Landscape *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

W/S South Tank Farm fuel depot *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

M/S Marcos Fagundes, local citizen and member of a civic movement aiming to take the subject to the Portuguese Parliament for immediate decontamination of the island, walking along path

SOT, Marcos Fagundes, local citizen and member of a civic movement aiming to take the subject to the Portuguese Parliament for immediate decontamination of the island (Portuguese): "The problem exists, there is no doubt that it was caused by the American Air Force, namely the US, and there are also no doubts that they are the ones responsible and who need to pay for it."

M/S Fagunde *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Marcos Fagundes, local citizen and member of a civic movement aiming to take the subject to the Portuguese Parliament for immediate decontamination of the island (Portuguese): "The more cancer cases there are, the more the population asks, why is this happening? Why at Praia da Vitoria are there roads that on one side, all houses have or had at least one case of cancer, and on the other side it's almost every other house. That is not normal."

W/S South Tank Farm fuel depot

W/S Praia da Vitoria

W/S Praia da Vitoria *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

M/S People walking along street

SOT, Dr. Carlos Lima, former regional health official and former Mayor of Praia da Vitoria (Portuguese): "The current president said 'America first.' Here we need to try to turn it around: America first, right, there in America. Here is 'Azores first' and then the Americans."

C/U Hands *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Dr. Carlos Lima, former regional health official and former Mayor of Praia da Vitoria (Portuguese): "It is called Pico Careca [Bald Peak] for a reason. I know many farmers who tried to plant something there and nothing was produced. Well, in a land with such fertile soil as ours, where we sow anything and anything grows, I doubt that there wasn't something happening there that burns everything that seeds."

M/S Warning sign on fence of the base

C/U Warning sign on fence of the base

C/U Fence

M/S Felix Rodrigues, Professor at Azores University, in office

SOT, Felix Rodrigues, physics Professor at Azores University (Portuguese): "Just to have an idea, in 10 years there were about 88,000 liters of fuel spilled. And these are evaluated and identified [amounts]. Not to mention those [spills] that were not identified. That's because when it's below 150 liters, no report is done."

C/U Hands *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Felix Rodrigues, physics Professor at Azores University (Portuguese): "We don't have legislation to say 'this soil is contaminated.' So we resort to [relevant legislation of] Canada or the Netherlands. We have 'only' 50 times more of what is allowed in the most polluted areas of those countries. This is something very worrying. Their laws oblige them to decontaminate. And we have 'only' 50 times more than the maximum accepted. It's incomprehensible that no action is taken."

C/U Map; Felix Rodrigues, physics Professor at Azores University [UPSOUND] (Portuguese): "South Tank Farm. Main Gate, that also presents worrisome levels of contamination. There were even two water bores here."

W/S Fencing of the airbase

C/U Warning signs on fence

M/S Orlando Lima, former worker at the US base in Terceira island, Azores, putting apart x-ray and alpha particles measure device

SOT, Orlando Lima, former worker at the US base in Terceira island, Azores (Portuguese) "There was also a Senate commission that came to Terceira, to check a 'claim,' a legal process, from some members of the American military, who were dying of terminal cancer and were exposed to radioactivity on Terceira Island. They were here for about one week, and during this time I found out what they were doing here. They were here to confirm the existence of radiation on Terceira Island. radioactive contamination"

C/U Military base warning sign

M/S Road entrance at US base Main Gate

W/S Portuguese and US flags at military base residential complex

W/S Town of Praia da Vitoria *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

SOT, Norberto Messias, Professor and investigator at the Superior School of Health (Portuguese): "Here is a little object that was collected from Praia bay, that helps us a little to understand the pollution at the Lajes base and the consequences of its presence here. This is a sample of residual hydrocarbons, sediments of hydrocarbons. Everything missing here in order to have usable oil is what remained in the soils after the spills and infiltrations."

C/U Sample material

SOT, Norberto Messias, Professor and investigator at the Superior School of Health (Portuguese): "My conviction is that there is a relation. And that is also what motivates me to do this study."

W/S Airfield for non-military flights

SOT, Norberto Messias, Professor and investigator at the Superior School of Health (Portuguese): "We don't have different genetic material, we don't have a different culture, we don't have different eating habits, we are the same as every other Portuguese [person]. The only thing that differentiates us is the pollution of the Lajes base. I don't see any other reason for having a higher incidence in these health related areas."

W/S Terceira landscape *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

W/S Terceira coast *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

SOT, Madail Avila, Praia da Vitoria resident who was cured of breast cancer (Portuguese): "Until which point this is not getting worse. I don't know."

C/U Avila *CUTAWAY*

SOT, Madail Avila, Praia da Vitoria resident who was cured of breast cancer (Portuguese): "I want to raise my children in a place where I have a guarantee that I will be able to give them a [good] quality of life. And this is a doubt that I have. Am I doing the right thing for the future generation?"

W/S Terceira coastal landscape *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

C/U Excerpt of environmental report: "27 June 2003"

C/U Excerpt of environmental report: "A 15,000-gallon JP-4 release occurred on July 19, 1984 occurred when an abandoned underground pipeline was inadvertently activated. According to interviews conducted, no clean up activity has occurred"

C/U Excerpt of environmental report: "Various hazardous materials have been stored at the small Arms firing Range. Including ammunition, lubricants and solvents. The sand at the back of the firing range is contaminated with lead. It is unknown if a removal action has occurred".

C/U Excerpt of environmental report: "The FTA was determined to be an AOC because of concerns of risk to human health for receptors along the following pathways: soil, air, surface water, and groundwater. Hydrocarbons are suspected to be present in the surface and subsurface soil".

C/U Excerpt of Hydrological Report Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal: "February 2005"

C/U Excerpt of Hydrological Report Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal: ""Historic activities at the South Tank Farm included burying sludge next to the access ports of the tanks that was generated during tank cleaning"

C/U Excerpt of Hydrological Report Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal: "Spills that cannot be retained within the storm drain OWS could potentially reach the Marina Harbor at Praia da Vitoria"

C/U Excerpt of Hydrological Report Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal: "The main gate Area/5 Hydrants Area is considered the most problematic site on Lajes Field due to the extent of fuel contamination and the possibility of offsite migration, including the potential impact of public supply wells"

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