More and more inhabitants of Portugal’s Terceira Island are suffering from deadly diseases, especially cancer, at rates far out of sync with the rest of the Azores archipelago. Terceira is no different from the other islands, except in one thing. Russia-based video agency RUPTLY has carried out an exclusive investigation into this matter.
The Lajes Airbase on Terceira Island has hosted the United States’ 65th Air Base Group for decades now. Ever since World War II it has been considered one of the most convenient bases: an airstrip in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, strategically situated between the US and Europe.
Serving as a midpoint refuelling station for US aviators, it contains a vast numbers of fuel tanks and other storage facilities. Local scientists say that over the course of its exploitation, there have been several major spills that could have contaminated local waters, aquifers and soil. To make things even scarier, inhabitants have been ringing alarm over alleged deadly nuclear activity in the base — while officials have remained silent.
Scientists and activists on the island are blowing the whistle, as the number of those suffering from severe diseases and dying from cancer is growing rapidly. Marcos Fagundes, local citizen and member of a civic movement advocating for immediate decontamination of the island, brings frightening statistics:
“…at [the town of] 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,” he said.
Norberto Messias, professor and investigator at the Superior School of Health, brings even more disturbing information on cancer statistics. According to him, a higher number of cases of cancer were registered on the island then the rest of Azores. Terceira is responsible for up to 33% of certain types of cancer, especially rarer cancers such as eye cancer, on the whole archipelago —all while being home to only 8.52 percent of the Azorean population.
The growing number of serious diseases among the local population like dementia, infertility and cardiac problems may be connected to above-normal concentrations of heavy metals and other pollutants, said Felix Rodrigues, a physics professor at Azores University. He is adamant that there are numerous locations on the island with extremely high levels of pollution caused by heavy metals, hydrocarbons or PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).
“The heavy metals have serious effects on health. There are very high levels of lead in some zones: copper, zinc, molybdenum […] 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,” Rodrigues said.
Messias showed one of his recent finds from Praia Bay. It looks like black rock, but according to him it is a sample of residual hydrocarbons: sediments of hydrocarbons. He is convinced that it is connected with the spills that happened on the US airbase.
“Everything missing here in order to have usable oil is what remained in the soils after the spills and infiltrations,” he added.
Rodrigues said that some 88,000 liters of fuel was spilled in the last 10 years — and that is only those that were documented. According to him anything less than 150 liters is not reported.
“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,” Rodrigues said.
Orlando Lima, a former worker at the US base, showed significantly increased levels of radioactivity near the Pico do Careca (Bald Peak), an artificial hill near the US base that was built in the place of old bunkers. The Geiger counter showed values between 18,000 and 22,000 picocuries in alpha particles.
He also said a story about a US Senate commission that visited the island to check a claim from the family of an American serviceman who was dying from the exposure to radioactivity, presumably on Terceira.
Even more troubling are two reports that local newspaper Diario Insular obtained via a confidential source. According to them, the US military is aware of about “30 areas of concern” and 17 major fuel spills, with 6 of them having the maximum level of severity. They also contained information about 38 areas with high concentrations of hydrocarbons and heavy metals, including lead and zinc both in water and soil.
Despite admitting multiple spills, a proper clean-up or decontamination was not always conducted.
“A 15,000-gallon JP-4 release occurred on July 19, 1984, when an abandoned underground pipeline was inadvertently activated. According to interviews conducted, no clean up activity has occurred,” according to an environmental report dated June 27, 2003.
“Historic activities at the South Tank Farm included burying sludge next to the access ports of the tanks that was generated during tank cleaning […] The sludge contained high levels of tetraethyl-lead (TEL) as well as TPH and BTEX. Numerous spills are known for the site […] Not all contaminated soils could be removed,” reads a Hydrological Report on Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal.
Madail Avila, a 34-year-old Praia da Vitoria resident who was cured of breast cancer, said that both of her parents died of cancer and they all lived on the island. She got the same breast cancer as the one that killed her mom, with the same pathology.
“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,” Avila said.
She wants to raise her kids in a place where she can guarantee a good quality of life, but is not confident that she can provide it on Terceira.
Messias is confident that “there is a relation” between the increased rates of cancer cases and severe health conditions and the presence of the US airbase.
“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,” the professor said.
US officials contacted by RUPTLY didn’t comment on the locals’ accusations, only noting that all due comments on the matter were made in a US press release published in the results of the last Portugal-United States bilateral meeting in December 2017. The press release featured a promise “to monitor the issues and encourage the technical experts to reach a conclusion on how best to proceed.”
Portuguese officials didn’t respond to request for comments.