This is a story about how a small island in the tropical pacific was proposed as a dumpsite for trash from the 2011 Japan tsunami. The story of Pagan Island involves the chemistry of Greece’s Pantheon, Jack Abramoff, sweatshops, and a bat so big it’s called a flying fox. Even on a remote uninhabited island, nothing is as simple as it seems.

Every day, about 270,000 people drive over the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Very few of them probably realize that the piers supporting the bridge are strengthened by a byproduct of volcanic eruption. This product is called pozzolan, and it has been in use for thousands of years. Pozzolan is an additive that increases the strength and durability of cement through something called the pozzolanic reaction.

If you’ve ever been to the Coliseum in Rome or the Pantheon in Greece, you’ve seen the proof of pozzolan’s durability. The pantheon’s ancient domed ceiling was made from pozzolanic cement mined from Greece. In addition to ancient icons like the Pantheon and the Coliseum, many modern structures are strengthened by volcanic pozzolan, including the Coyote Power Generating Plant in North Dakota, the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia river between Oregon and Washington, and the Los Angeles Aqueduct (famous for its Grease car race scene).

Pozzolanic cement allows us to generate power, move water, and even cross over it. But where in the world does natural pozzolan come from? In fact, although there are over 1000 volcanos that have been active in the last 10,000 years, only three have produced “high quality” pozzolan suitable for use in cement production. These three volcanoes are Santorini Volcano in Greece, Vesuvius in Italy, and Pagan Volcano in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands. Of the three, only the Pagan Island volcano is currently active, and it has never been mined for pozzolan. In 1981, an especially large volcanic eruption spewed pozzolan over about five square miles of the island, covering some parts of it up to 100 feet.

Unlike at Santorini and Vesuvius, the pozzolan deposits at Pagan Island are not conveniently located to… anything, really. Pagan is extremely isolated, located 198 km (123 miles) from the Marianas Islands capital on Saipan Island and more than 1000 miles from mainland Japan. Pagan is one of the most biologically diverse islands in the Northern Marianas, and is currently uninhabited (the Chamorro residents were evacuated during the 1981 volcano eruption, and have been unable to return).

It has been relatively sheltered from development and invasive species, and is home to many animals that are rare on the populated islands. The species found on Pagan include the Marianas fruit bat, which has a three-foot wing-span and is also known as the flying fox for its dog-like face.

Another species that finds refuge on Pagan is the endemic Micronesian megapode, which is extinct on the populated islands of Tinian, Rota, Saipan and Guam.

Micronesian megapodes are the only birds known to incubate their eggs using the heat from volcanoes. Like many ground-nesting forest birds (including New Zealand’s Kiwi), they are especially vulnerable to invasive species and habitat loss. The threatened tree snail Partula gibba, which is similar to Hawaii’s endemic tree snails, also makes Pagan Island its home.

The largest arthropod in the world, the coconut crab, is common on Pagan. On more populated islands, it is rare due to habitat loss, and because it is tasty. Coconut crabs can break open coconut shells with their bare claws – something you or I would need a machete or an axe to do.

Beyond the shores, the coral reefs are teeming with life. Coral is easily disturbed by sedimentation and by development such as the construction of breakwaters and piers. These structures would be necessary for any sort of development on Pagan Island, whether it be mining, processing of tsunami trash, or as a base for military live fire exercises.

Just to visit Pagan Island and look at the pozzolan, you’d have to fly for two hours in a small plane over the Pacific Ocean from Saipan. Which is exactly what a team of Japanese investors, engineers, and scientists from the Kansai Oil Co. did on April 27th. Over the span of their 10-year lease, these investors are proposing to mine almost 100 million metric tons of pozzolan from Pagan. In order to do so, they will need to build facilities on the undeveloped island, including possibly “a functioning seaport, a small airstrip, or power and water services” at a cost to the company of roughly 20 million dollars.

To offset the high price of shipping, the investors are proposing to ship debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami to Pagan for “temporary storage and recycling”. I have “temporary storage” in quotes because I find it difficult to believe that if there is not enough money now to bring empty ships to Pagan Island to collect pozzolan, there will be enough money later to bring empty ships back to collect the “stored” debris. And it’s not even as though there is no other way to obtain pozzolanic material – it is manufactured in many ways, including as a byproduct of coal and electrical plants (some methods are greener than others).

To understand why Marianas Islands residents might want to lease their land to another country as a dumping site, it is important to understand some of the history and politics of this island chain.

Since 1591, the Northern Marianas Islands have been claimed by Spain, Mexico, Germany, Japan, and the United States. During the Spanish occupation, some 90-95% of the native Chamorro people died of Spanish-introduced diseases. As if this wasn’t enough, the Spanish also forced the entire native population to move from their home islands to Guam, from which they were not allowed to return for approximately 150 years. Spain sold the Northern Marianas to Germany in 1899, but it was awarded to Japan after World War I. US forces captured most of the Northern Marianas in July of 1944, and ended the War in the Pacific by launching the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima from Tinian (the second-most populated island in the Northern Marianas).

So what would motivate a small island nation to sell one of its most limited commodities – land? Until recently, the Northern Marianas benefited from the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which limited the amount of imports on goods such as textiles from outside the US. The Northern Marianas as a territory of the US had no such restrictions, but also was able to regulate its own immigration laws. Thus, they were able to bring over immigrant factory workers from China and pay them lower-than-US federal minimum wage, but also sell the garments as “made in the USA.”

Thousands of people immigrated from China and elsewhere to work in the factories in Saipan (which has 90% of the population of the Northern Marianas). During the late ‘90s, there were many allegations that the conditions in the factories were inhumane. As the expiration of the GATT drew near, the government of the Northern Marianas hired Jack Abramoff at $100,000 per month to lobby for a lower minimum wage in Saipan than in the rest of the United States. The long effort to keep minimum wage laws from applying to Saipan was lost in 2008, after Abramoff was sent to jail for fraud.

In 2005, when the GATT expired, Saipan suddenly lost its trade advantage. Between 2005 and 2009, all 35 of the garment factories closed, leaving a glut of workers.

Many of these workers are young women who now work at massage parlors. When I was in Saipan last year, the massage ladies constantly pestered my male coworker when we walked to dinner.

The economy of Saipan Island, which has 90% of the population for the Northern Marianas, is hurting badly. Saipan is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to, and almost every store accepts food stamps. This poverty is why they have considered leasing their limited land to a Japanese Oil Company. Or to a private company. Or to the US Navy as a training site (Surveys of Pagan Island have been funded by the US Department of Defense because it is being considered as a live fire training area as part of the Guam buildup, much like Ka`ula Rock in Hawai`i and San Celemente Island in California).

At this time, Pagan Island is still being proposed as a site for mining and for temporary “storage” of tsunami debris. The Tsunami that destroyed Fukushima and killed thousands of people in Japan was an enormous tragedy. There is no reason to add to that tragedy by moving this debris to Pagan Island and harming its natural beauty and biodiversity. Even if scientists’ campaign to stop the debris from being dumped on Pagan prevails, the threat to Pagan is not gone. There is still money to be made from Pagan Island, whether it is from mining of pozzolan or another type of lease.

There is little financial profit in making Pagan Island a refuge for wildlife or returning it to the native people who still think of it as home. Larger, richer countries have a history of taking advantage of poorer island nations, from the nuclear bomb tests at Bikini Atoll to overharvesting of Kiribas tuna by illegal fisherman. It is rare that these nations are sufficiently compensated for damage to their environment - if it is even possible to determine a price for that kind of damage. Like many islands in the Pacific, many people have never heard of Northern Marianas Islands, let alone the Pagan Island. Which is too bad, because they really are beautiful and unique. The next time you drive across a bridge or see cement being poured for a new building, think of Pagan.

For more information on and photos of Pagan Island, visit