WASHINGTON – Sen. Lisa Murkowski has again found herself at odds with the Interior Department – this time, over how millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent to make up for the bombing of a small Pacific island chain six decades ago.
The conflict is over control of the Bikini Resettlement Trust Fund, which was formed in the 1980s to take care of residents from Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. The island chain was bombed by the United States during the Cold War.
Until last year, the Interior Department held veto power over how much the Bikini people could withdraw from the fund annually. But in November 2017, the Trump administration, through Secretary Ryan Zinke, handed control over the then-$59 million to the Bikinians, who were exiled a generation ago after the United States tested nearly two dozen nuclear bombs on or near the atoll.
The fate of the money should be "transferred to [the] people of Bikini," Doug Domenech, assistant secretary of insular affairs at Interior, said in a statement late last year, "rather than be dependent upon policy makers in Washington."
But Murkowski has been pushing behind the scenes – and soon, will do so in public when Domenech testifies before her committee Tuesday – for Interior to safeguard the money for future Bikinians.
Murkowski is concerned about the fact that Bikinians withdrew $11 million from the fund within weeks of taking control of it. Interior typically budgeted between $5 million and $8 million for the Bikini community every year.
In December, the senator wrote a letter to Zinke to "express [her] concern" about the decision to put the fund under local control, which she said she learned about "via a press release."
"Although I agree in with a principle in favor of local decision-making and share your desire to restore trust with local residents," Murkowski wrote, "I am also concerned, as I know you are, that the Department meet it legal and fiduciary obligations with respect to the expenditure of U.S. taxpayer dollars."
Murkowski has since introduced legislation capping annual withdrawals from the fund at 5 percent of its market value. The senior Alaska senator keeps tabs on Pacific island concerns as chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees Interior.
At the height of the health care debate last summer, Zinke, who oversees more than 55 percent of Alaska's land, called Murkowski and lobbied for her support in repealing the Affordable Care Act. According to an Anchorage Daily News report, Zinke implied the state's interests were at risk because of Murkowski's opposition. Shortly after that, Murkowski postponed a vote on three Trump administration nominees to Interior.
Ultimately, Murkowski did not relent, joining Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Susan Collins (Maine) along with every Senate Democrat to kill the bill.
Since then, Zinke and Murkowski made amends over Alaska craft beer and worked together to stack up a series of policy changes the Alaska congressional delegation has long sought, including an expanded lease sale in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and the approval of a land-swap deal allowing a remote Alaska village to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
During the arms race of the 1940s and 1950s, the United States tested 23 nuclear devices on Bikini – including, in 1954, the largest thermonuclear bomb the United States has ever detonated.
For the people of Bikini, the radioactive fallout made their homeland uninhabitable. Since 1982, Congress has appropriated a total of $110 million to relocate the Bikinians to other Pacific islands and to eventually resettle them in Bikini when radiation subsided on the atoll, which is part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
Interior did not respond to requests for comment.
The resettlement fund was created in 1982 during the Reagan administration. Under both Democratic and Republican presidents, Interior has kept a watchful eye over the multimillion-dollar fund and approved the Bikinians' annual allowance to make sure the interest it generated allowed it to last.
Not all Bikinians – many of whom live in poverty and are scattered between Kili, Ejit, and other Pacific islands as well as in the United States – have been happy with this arrangement. The mayor of the local Bikinian government, who took office in 2016, pressed Interior – which with President Donald Trump's election was under new management – to let Bikinians spend money from the fund as they wished.
"The U.S. government should meet his promises to take care of us," Mayor Anderson Jibas said in an interview. "I don't think anybody should be in the way to prevent us from getting the money that can keep us going in our lives."
In August of last year, the 18-member council of the Kili-Bikini-Ejit Local Government voted in favor of a resolution arguing the trust was never intended to last "in perpetuity" and the local government "has been handicapped in developing income-generating projects" without full access to the money.
After months of lobbying, Interior acquiesced – and gave the Bikinians full control of the fund.
The Trump administration "recognizes that you and the Council Members are best situated to determine the future of the People of Bikini," Domenech, assistant secretary at Interior, wrote to Jibas in November.
Domenech added Interior, with few exceptions, "shall never again interact with you" regarding the resettlement fund.
Some Bikinians share Murkowski's concerns, and are worried the money will be wantonly spent without the federal government's intervention.
"I think about my kids: What's going to happen to them in the future?" said Jukulius Niedenthal, a Bikini councilman. "There could be nothing for them."
Jibas, along with the Bikini council that voted 15 to 18 in favor of the resolution, countered by saying the purchases they are considering, which include two boats and an airplane, could be chartered for revenue.
Critics of current Bikinian leadership, including former Mayor Alson Kelen, call such investments ill-conceived.
"We don't even have a business plan for" the purchases, said Kelen, who served as mayor from 2009 to 2011 – just after "the stock market went belly up," he said, and the trust fund fell in value from $100 million to about $78 million between 2007 and 2008.
"Big airline companies are merging because they cannot survive alone," Kelen added.
Jack Niedenthal, former trust liaison for the Bikini government for over three decades and father of Jukulius, argues the bulk of the money is better off where it was already invested.
"Most of our investments (were) very prudently invested in the U.S. markets and international markets," he said. "No kind of crazy schemes, like what they're talking about now."
But the daily needs of the Bikinians have been exacerbated today by another threat. In recent years, the island of Kili, a third of a square mile in size, has been battered by high tides as sea levels rise due to the melting of polar ice thousands of miles from the tropics as heat-trapping gases build up in the atmosphere.
Jibas, the Bikinian mayor, said the local government is considering using the money to build seawalls and higher housing. The Bikini government, with the support of the Obama administration, asked Congress in 2015 for a more radical solution: To change the terms of the fund to allow Bikinians to use it to purchase land in the United States.