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Contact Islands Program

Pacific Southwest, Region 9

Serving: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Pacific Islands, Tribal Nations

Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

History and Recent Development

The CNMI consists of a volcanic and limestone archipelago of 14 islands extending in a generally north-south direction for 338 nautical miles for a land area of 176 square miles. Saipan is the largest island (46 square miles), and is the urban, commercial and government center. The islands of Rota (32 square miles) and Tinian (39 square miles) are largely rural.

In the past, much of the CNMI's notoriety stemmed from its role in World War II, but an expanding tourist market has spurred the construction and garment manufacturing industries and contributed to a large alien labor population, now outnumbering native island residents. From 1980 -1997, the CNMI's population increased 275%, from 16,780 to 63,000. The development boom has resulted in an escalation in land prices, rapid inflation, increases in housing starts and the construction of many hotels, resorts, apartments, golf courses and commercial establishments.

Such tremendous growth has strained the ability of the local government to provide adequate infrastructure. While the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation, charged with providing the CNMI with power, water and sewer services, has made much progress in meeting the growing demand, it is still struggling to make its drinking water and waste treatment systems meet EPA and local standards. Municipal tap water remains unpotable (although usually meeting federal MCLs), containing high levels of chloride and calcium. Commercially operated reverse osmosis water treatment facilities sell drinking water to the local population and some hotels, garment factories and barracks maintain their own RO systems also. There are over 100 permitted private wells on Saipan. Homestead "villages" are increasing and expanding, some with little or no sewer and water delivery systems.

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In the 80's the CNMI opened its doors to foreign capital and labor and began a transformation from an economy supported largely by subsistence and goverment into a regional tourist destination and a garment manufacturing haven. This also changed the demographic profile of the commonwealth as the population in 1980 of 16,780, rose to 63,000 in 1997: an increase of 275%. The growth of the temproary labor force has overwhelmed that of the indigenous population as well as that of all U.S. citizens. In 1997, foreign workers comprised 69 percent of the workforce. In 1995, all U.S. citizens, including CNMI-born citizens, numbered 27,478, and the alien population was 31,368 (this does not include the illegal aliens which may be several thousand).

The economic boom in the CNMI is reflected in the gross business revenues taxes from 1986-96, which increased 247%, from $19.3 million to $67.0 million for an annual gain of 13% a year. Revenues generated from wages/salaries, import and export taxes, and hotel tax gains also increased substantially.

However, the downturn in the Asian economy in 1998 hit the tourism and business sectors of CNMI hard. The number of visitors has dropped dramatically (25-40%), although there has been a slight recovery in recent months, which has affected the hotels and visitor-associated industries. Recent changes in important rules have resulted in over 10 garment factories leaving Saipan. Government belt-tightening is apparent because of the decrease in revenues and the multi-million dollar debt left by the previous administration. Hiring freezes, layoffs are in effect, and there has been talk about reduction in work hours to meet the government payroll.

CNMI Division of Environmental Quality (DEQ)

In 1982 the CNMI legislature established DEQ within the Department of Public Health and Environmental Services. Under the previous administration, DEQ was reorganized and placed within the Department of Public Works, and its earthmoving program transferred to another DPW section. DEQ is seeking to revise the Environmental Quality Protection Act which, among other changes, would establish it as an independent agency. Under the original enabling legislation, DEQ promulgated regulations addressing many aspects of environmental resources management and emphasizing the direct and indirect protection of CNMI's most valuable resources, its public water supply. Protection of groundwater resources is a main goal of the agency, through the permitting of underground and surface alteration activities, although due to the tremendous development and political pressures, it is difficult for DEQ staff to adequately regulate all activities impacting groundwater.

DEQ laboratory staff conducts weekly monitoring of groundwater wells, tap water, commercially-sold drinking water and marine water, notifying the public of the results through the media. The laboratory was recently certified (with high marks) for microbiological analysis of drinking water, by EPA.

DEQ employs over 30 staff (there are several vacancies to be filled) who manage the administrative, permitting, waste management, pesticide, air, surface water, wastewater and drinking water programs.

EPA Construction Grant Activity

We currently have two active construction grant projects in the CNMI: the Beach Road sewer Project, and construction of an outfall for the Agingan wastewater treatment. These projects will provide the villages with sewer collection services as well as prevent sewage overflows.

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