The US Navy has been discharging sewage and waste water into the British-owned and protected Diego Garcia coral lagoon since the 1980s, according to a new report by the UK-based Independent.
The base in question – located on the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean – has been the focus of intense lobbying by supporters of the native residents, who were resettled elsewhere in the 1970s in order to make way for a US naval establishment. The British government has stated on multiple occasions that those Chagossians could not return to the island due to its effort to maintain the area’s unspoiled habitat.
Despite these claims, however, scientists have found the state of the coral in the lagoon to be deteriorating, and have singled out increased levels of nitrogen and phosphate as the possible culprits. According to the Independent, the presence of these elements is likely the result of the US Navy dumping treated sewage water and other waste into the lagoon for the last three decades.
Although the British government was aware of the Navy’s behavior in 2013, it has only now been revealed to the public.
“In April last year it came to our attention that the US vessels moored in the lagoon had been discharging waste water into the lagoon since the establishment of the naval support station there in the early 1980s,” wrote Foreign Office minister Mark Simmonds in a statement to Parliament, according to the newspaper. “This waste water is treated sewage, and water left over from routine processes like cleaning and cooking.”
Public groups representing the Chagossians removed from the islands quickly criticized the revelation, claiming both the US and British authorities have been employing a double standard – polluting the lagoon while insisting the native population cannot return due to environmental concerns.
“While the people who were born and bred on Chagos are not allowed to return to their island, the military base of Diego Garcia houses about 5,000 US servicemen and women and ancillary workers,” said Philippa Gregory of the UK Chagos Support Association told the Independent. “It makes no sense to suggest that Chagossians cannot return because of pressure on the environment.”
The British government acknowledged that the pollution – which could potentially number in the hundreds of tons – is a violation of the country’s policies and that it could be damaging the coral. It also said it has “stringent environmental legislation” to protect Diego Garcia.
It's still unclear when exactly US officials were notified that the Navy’s actions were violating British law, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said it has taken the appropriate steps to resolve the situation.
“Since identifying this issue in April last year, we have worked with our US partners to assess the scale of the problem and rapidly agree a comprehensive mitigation plan that is now well under way.”