12 Feb 2016
- By Cherrie Anne E. Villahermosa - firstname.lastname@example.org - Variety News Staff
THE military will have its divert airfield on Tinian and not on Saipan, a decision that Gov. Ralph Torres applauded, saying it is good news for the commonwealth.
Torres said the announcement was a “monumental event in the history of the CNMI” and that having a divert airfield on Tinian will benefit both the military and the commonwealth.
He joined Lt. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield, deputy commander, U.S. Pacific Command, and Rear Adm. Babette Bolivar, commander, Joint Region Marianas, in a press conference on Thursday at the governor’s office.
The governor said he is excited to see it happen on Tinian.
“We are here to work together to make that happen. There are a couple of things that we need to move forward on to make this happen, there are timelines and requirements that we need to see to and I will be meeting with the Commonwealth Ports Authority as we look forward to implementing this decision,” Torres said, adding that it will lead to a much better and stronger relationship between the armed forces and the CNMI.
Crutchfield said there were two things that they considered before coming up with the decision. He said they understood the concerns of the people of the CNMI so they tried to match those concerns with some of the requirements.
“I believe this is a positive example of how two can meet and work together. We are excited to have Tinian as our divert airfield, and we will work together in making that happen as there are still things that need to be done.”
He noted that their point of contact with the leadership of the CNMI is the governor, but a number people from the Air Force, the Marine Corps, the Navy and the Pacific Command are also involved “and sometimes it can be confusing and sometimes we can be overwhelming.”
He said the secretary of Defense “has appointed me as the single point of contact to speak for the Department of Defense, the Pacific Command, the Air Force and the Marine Corps on this issue, so strategically the governor has a single point of contact which is me and I told him that he can contact me 24 hours a day and of course Admiral Bolivar will continue to be here. She has the same access, and she and I are working together on this issue. But the point is, from now on, everything will be coordinated through the Pacific Command which is headed by me. I will coordinate with the Department of Defense. Every time I come here to speak, I will be speaking on behalf of the DoD, and I think that is going to help us move forward in a positive direction and will help overcome whatever obstacles we may possibly encounter.”
Crutchfield said the governor’s letter last December mentioned critical points that made the military reconsider some options.
“It was a process. We have a group, stakeholders led by DoD and the Marines. Admiral Bolivar was part of it, and we met regularly to talk about the issues. It was the governor’s letter that made us lay it on the table and…listen to the people of the CNMI. The second thing that struck me in that letter was the governor’s saying he was willing to work. He said ‘I am willing to work while listening to the people of the CNMI.’ The government is saying ‘Here is the other branch willing to work.’ those are two main points in the letter that I believe are critical,” Crutchfield said.
He added that they have to acknowledge both the cultural issues of the CNMI and the security of the nation.
The Marianas, he said, are the military’s strategic points of defense.
Asked when the divert airfield would open on Tinian, Crutchfield said they need to come up with an agreement first.
“There are procedures that the governor must help us with to get this thing started, including an agreement that needs to be signed — that’s the first step.”
Torres asked the community to support the divert airfield on Tinian.
Rep. John Paul Sablan said the military’s announcement is good news not only for Tinian but for the rest of the commonwealth as well.
“I’ve always been supportive of the administration’s position that the military should use Tinian for the divert airfield. I’m happy that it has been resolved by the military right now. This is the first step and there’s still room for improvements as we go along,” said Sablan who is chairman of the Saipan and Northern Islands Legislative Delegation.
House Floor Leader George Camacho, in a separate interview, said the news is good for Saipan’s tourism industry.
“We need to protect air service on Saipan, so it’s welcome news to hear that the military has verbally committed to establishing their divert airfield on Tinian.
“We know that tourism is our main industry and we need to protect our air space and leave Saipan open for airlines to come in…. It’s good for Saipan and Tinian as well, as it will allow Tinian to grow and the military will not just come in there, they will also make sure that there are improvements to the facilities, the runway, the airport, everything. It’s just one of the many issues we need to address with the military, but, for now, we’ll celebrate one victory and then proceed from there.”
The DoD, in a press release, announced the selection of Tinian as the preferred alternative for the CNMI Pacific Air Forces Divert Activities and Exercises Initiative.
This is the modified Tinian-only alternative as described in the revised draft Environmental Impact Statement or EIS.
“The purpose of the initiative is to establish additional divert capabilities to support training activities while ensuring the capability to meet mission requirements in the event access to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam or other Western Pacific locations is limited or denied.”
The statement quoted Deborah Lee James, secretary of the Air Force, as saying: “I am pleased to announce Tinian as the preferred alternative for this initiative and greatly appreciate the contributions of the people of the CNMI community to our nation’s defense. We believe this initiative will provide critical strategic operational and exercise capabilities for U.S. forces and provide economic benefits to the local community.”
According to DoD, the initiative will also improve the Tinian airport infrastructure to support up to 12 tanker aircraft and associated support personnel for divert operations. Periodic exercises will be conducted up to eight weeks per year.
“The divert initiative in the CNMI will create the only divert airfield in the Western Pacific and provide the U.S. Air Force with the capability to conduct either temporary or sustained refueling operations from an additional location in the region,” said Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the Air Force. “It will also give us another location to use when supporting contingency or natural-disaster responses in the region.”
The modified Tinian-only alternative was selected as the preferred alternative. But Saipan and the hybrid options remain “reasonable alternatives.”
According to DoD, the EIS analyzes many factors for each alternative, including quality of life, noise, cultural and historical interests, safety, potential effects on natural and coastal resources, land use, effects on existing air traffic, and effects on tourism and recreation.
“During the comment period, we heard from government agencies and community members on both Saipan and Tinian. They expressed an overwhelming desire to locate the divert initiative on Tinian,” said Gen. Lori Robinson, commander, Pacific Air Forces. “In addition to enhancing our national defense, the expansion of the airport on Tinian will enhance U.S. Pacific Command’s disaster relief and humanitarian assistance capabilities in the region.”
The Air Force said it will release the final environmental impact statement in the spring after which a record of decision will be signed.