Fool Me Once…

Clark AFB 1970
Clark AFB 1970
Clark AFB 1970

By Michael Hughes

The last year has seen a lot of buzz regarding the stationing of U.S. Military Troops and supplies on Philippine soil. As reported by Routers, May 2, 2014, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, (EDCA) will allow the U.S. Military to station troops and supplies on a number of Philippine Military bases as well as the use of certain civil airports. Military Officials assert that EDCA will enhance the Philippine defense capabilities, especially as regards territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Shortly after the Agreement was signed, Stars and Stripes published an up-beat article; “U.S. Military Return to the Philippines Sparks Economic Hopes.” While acknowledging controversy around the issue, the article points to vendors and professionals who remember the economic advantages brought on by American Military, their families and contractors. The same article also points out; “The EDCA allows U.S. Forces and contractors to operate for at least ten years. The agreement stipulates that the U.S. can’t set up permanent bases – the revised Philippine Constitution bans that – but it hands over operational control of the locations to U.S. forces and allows them to stock pile equipment and supplies.”

Global Research publishes a much more jaundiced view of the issue. An article by Joseph Santolan first published on the World Socialist website, May 17, interprets the Agreement strictly in terms of Neo-Colonialism. Santolan points out; “The deal grants to the United States exclusive use of an undisclosed number of “agreed locations” for which no rent shall be paid and on which the Pentagon can base an unlimited number of forces. U.S. forces and contractors are not subject to Philippine Law, having immunity from local jurisdiction. Only one designated Filipino will be allowed access to U.S. Bases in the country, and that only after he has obtained permission from U.S. forces.”

As a resident of Angeles City, I contest that immunity assertion. Past cases have already proved that the United States has no intention of letting a bunch of rowdies run rampant. Military men will be held accountable. In fact, Stars and Stripes stressed the need for troops to be on their best behavior.


At the age of 49, a fortunate dispatch sent me to a job as a field tech on an incinerator remediating volatile hazardous materials, including PCBs for a division of Roy F. Weston, a leading environmental concern. Having worked much of my career in the construction and maintenance of Steel Mills and Refineries, I had developed a long term interest in environmental and safety issues. I had attended the first Haz/Mat training classes open to the general membership of my Union, and I subsequently gained some scattered experience working under EPA guidelines. Working for Weston provided me with my first opportunity to work long term and put my passion and experience to the test.

I will never forget my pre-employment interview. The Manager, Mike P. told me that Weston operating procedures required him to interview me despite the fact that the Union agreement left him no choice in the matter. He also expressed disfavor with Union tactics. Weston had only accepted Union jurisdiction to avoid unwanted publicity or worse from my Union. It was the first time Weston had bowed under pressure and signed a contract granting Union participation. We got jurisdiction over half of the work force, while Weston brought the other half from their first incineration project in Beardstown, Illinois. As I related my experience and work habits we gradually loosened up enough to have a genial conversation. He was still in the Army Officer Reserve and had no prior experience with Trade Unions. He asked me what they were all about. I had some fun with the question.

I explained it this way: Back at the turn of the century, construction workers were ruthlessly exploited by the owners. They worked long hours, under difficult and dangerous conditions for little pay and no job security. Socialist and leftist intellectual social reformers, with no actual working experience, organized the Trade Unions and assumed Union leadership positions. But the Socialist pansies encountered the problem of owners hiring thugs and Pinkertons to break up the strikes, usually by brute force. The Socialists hired labor goons tied to organized crime . The mob bosses provided the necessary muscle to fight the owners with the proviso that mobsters be given a share of leadership positions as payment. After a long pause, Mike P. asked me “Then what happened?” I gave a shrug of my shoulders and sly grin as I replied “then we threw the Commie bastards out.”

Following a friendly chuckle I continued; “There’re advantages to doing business with us. We honor our contracts whether you sign them reluctantly or voluntarily. You honor your side, we get it done. With 29 years in the Local, I am likely the senior Union man on this job. So I make you a pledge. I’ll keep the men in line and get it done. You just honor the contract in all its terms. I’ll protect you. Not only that I will also protect you from any ‘dirty’ work. If something needs swept under the carpet, I’m the guy that will take the heat. You will always have clean hands.” We shook on it.

As I slipped into the routine of my duties I maintained the ‘tough guy’ no nonsense posture. For the first time in my checkered career I saw myself on a level playing field. With two young daughters to raise, I got ambitious. The company guys were all ‘jacks’ from out of town with questionable skills. The two most knowledgeable field techs had been brought in and given Union Cards for their skills and prior experience. My familiarity with various processes used in the Steel Mills gave me an eye for trouble. When a couple of wiseacre Union men tried to reinterpret the overtime clauses in the workers favor. I refused to support them and pointed out the operable clauses in the contract. And so it went.

When the incinerator was operational, Mike P. divided us into three crews covering a 7 day 24 hour operation. We worked revolving shifts of 12 hours per crew. I soon resolved to find a way to get strait days. My two young daughters needed their daddy. My first stab at strait days was to take over the mismanaged and hated excavation duties. By taking strait days, I succeeded in preparing enough soil for all shifts. Because excavation was done on supplied air, all the workers were glad to get out of it. My real chance came when I noticed that the Health and Safety Officer was not performing up to par. I vowed to take his job. I used my spare time to learn his job by doing the most obnoxious parts. The fact that Weston policy forbad Union workers from supervisory positions did not deter me.

I made alliances with key personnel to streamline productivity and smooth out personal differences. I defined every problem in terms of its solution. I cozened up to visiting Weston Engineers and made sure they knew my many contributions to enhanced productivity. Over the objections of corporate hotshots back at company headquarters, I obtained the Safety Officer position on the condition that I continue with excavation, effectively doing two jobs for the price of one. My overall efforts and innovations made the difference between the job finishing in the red and making a small profit. I also won a change in company policy. Weston invited our Union members to travel with the unit.

I managed the demobilization of the incinerator and shipped the parts to Mike P. at our next job in Jefferson, Ohio. When I finally arrived there, things were in shambles. There were constant disagreements and hostilities with the general contractor. Lines of authority were blurred. Our men were often subject to the whims of general contractor personnel. Morale was at an all-time low. Adding to the difficulties, Mike P. was more interested in taking the best hands to a bigger job in Savanna, IL I knew I would have to find a way to fix things myself. My opportunity came with the arrival of our new ‘hired gun’ manager, Rudy. Mike was too absorbed with management problems to provide Rudy with company mandated orientation. I accepted the task.

By then I knew Mike P’s intent was to leave Rudy and I for dead. He had creamed off the best hands to go to Savanna on a new and larger incinerator and on a much longer contract. As I showed Rudy around, I played my best gangster hand. I mentioned that under Weston’s accounting procedures, office and some safety funds were generous and required no supporting receipts. I showed him everything Mike was doing wrong and told him how we could make it right. I asked for and received a free hand with the workers, both company and Union. Rudy was a mercenary I could work with. He was on his last job before retiring, and I wanted to run the show. We knew there was enough money floating to skim off our share.

With Mike P. out of the way, I shifted into full gangster gear. I called the home project manager and asked him to send me a very tough lady Engineer named Cathy to handle the general contractor. She bullied him into multiple change orders, all of which increased our profitability by leaps and bounds. Her actions also put an end to the petty disputes that had so troubled the project. Next as I hired Local Union replacements, I identified their key skills as well as personal needs. Every one of them became my personal henchman. Rudy and I used office funds to make Friday free lunch days for the men. I ordered the best coffee for our break room and brewed it myself. I skirted safety regulations to increase productivity. But I never compromised actual safety. I wrote a change to the safety plan which allowed the use of cotton coveralls in place is disposable PPE. I got the men better safety glasses. As a result of these and other measures Weston’s profit soared well above that anticipated. Rudy decided to stay on and join me on our next job in Minnesota.

This time I had the cream to take along. Nearly all the company men were gone, replaced by the best Union hands I had hired and cultivated. As we picked up Local Union hands in Minnesota, I again initiated them as my personal ‘henchmen.’

Jim, our site Engineer, and I devised a plan to enrich each and every man. Innovations we had made in Ohio, combined with Jim’s genius with process, lead us to conclude we could process 20 to 22 tons an hour while our contract only required 6 tons to become profitable. I wrote a proposal to company headquarters requesting ‘safety bonuses’ of 25 cents a ton for every ton over six, to every man on shift and unlimited overtime for key mechanics and electricians. The conditional requirement was no lost time reportable accidents for that month. I took on two jobs again. In addition to health and safety, I performed all the real time air monitoring and the mandated personal air sampling. This guaranteed me about an 80 week at above the Union contract wage. We all made so much money in the first month of production that some big shot way up the corporate ladder became alarmed that mere field techs might make more in real income than he did. He forced me to re-negotiate bonuses down to a mere nickel a ton.

Leaving Minnesota for Centralia, Washington , Jim and I came up with another beautiful scam. Weston had depended on an industrial moving company to de-mobilize and re-mobilize the incinerator. We had noted that using the movers resulted in duplication effort. While the sub-contractor men performed most of the work, our men had been reduced to watching and running for parts tools. I wrote a memo to corporate requesting that our trusted hands perform all of the work, and eliminate the sub-contractor. We already knew we could obtain additional hands from the Iron Workers and Pipefitter Unions as needed. We estimated we could save Weston $250,000 in moving expenses in addition to saving time in getting the unit up and running. Corporate reluctantly agreed, with the stipulation again of no lost time accidents. Both our jobs were at stake.

The move was so successful that both Jim and I got hefty bonuses as soon as the unit was operational. By then we had such superior personnel that my job began to get easier. We also got a new manager, an obviously hopeless alcoholic. I pitched him the same way I had pitched Rudy. All he had to do was stay out of the way and send the paper work on time. Jim and I even provided him with an office whiz to do most of his work. The new guy showed his gratitude by approving my four hours of overtime every Sunday (at double time) and buying my whole family Sunday breakfast. This was my third job to turn a huge profit for Weston. In the meantime huge losses on the ‘big job’ in Savanna reduced the overall profitability of our division. Sad to say changes in the haz-mat scene resulted in the Centralia job to be our units last.

We had counted on a big job in Bedford MA to begin as this one ended. Weston already had the contract. My Safety Plan and work plan met with approval. I was charging my work hours to that account. But Green Peace had taken a dislike to incineration. They petitioned to re-open Community approval. Weston lawyers and executives agreed to it. After all they had one the first time with an 80% approval. It was a fatal mistake. Weston lost an election in which they needn’t have run. The loss of the Bedford contract left our unit with no foreseeable work.

Little by little we had to let key personal go. After weeks of just showing up and hanging in the mandatory eight hours, I realized it was nearly time to get my girls into a new school district. We packed up and headed for Indiana. Planning to quit Weston, I took a job working nights on a 7/12 rebuild at Bethlehem Steel. It was dark, dirty and unsafe. A call from Mike P. resolved the issue. He was setting up the big unit in Childersburg, Al. He said I could fly to Weston’s home office in Pennsylvania and work in the Engineering Department until he was ready for me in Alabama. My wife was over joyed because she liked the job security Weston provided.

Just weeks later we enrolled our girls in a public school in Sylacauga Al. The big unit already had a designated Safety Officer. But half the men worked in soil testing and excavation in what I called the back 40. I had to adjust to certain Southern biases but the great outdoors was a welcome change. In addition to my on-site duties, I was occasionally asked to fly here or there to trouble shoot underperforming projects. Finally, I was offered one of my own. Weston had a contract to remediate contaminated soils remaining after the demolition of an old Chemical Plant. After the years of being de facto manager, Weston had finally slated me as manager of the Cordoba Chemical Plant project in Muskegon Michigan. My old unit and a smaller low temperature one were to be operated in in series. The project was estimated to last a full five years. I could retire at projects end and fulfill my dream of life by the sea in the sunny Philippines.

The timing was perfect. The kids had just completed their school terms, and I was getting bored with life in a small town. We didn’t even have to look for housing. The Army Corps of Engineers had leased an executive level apartment in a lovely complex which included a beautiful play area and a heated indoor pool. Anticipating a great summer with the kids, I sent my wife to the Philippines to finish our palace by the sea.

My duties were light. Even doing paper work for other projects left me time to explore the area around the Corps offices. A very large structure some distance behind our offices caught my attention. It was a huge water treatment plant. Talking with its operators and Army Corps men, I learned that it was fed by wells scattered over miles of area; and that they anticipated treating water there for at least 20 years to restore Muskegon’s ground water to acceptable limits. Weston’s job was to treat the soils where the former chemical plant had stood to prevent continuing leaching of chemicals into the ground water.

As I was supervising the pile driving necessary for our units foundation, a group of men I had never seem before abruptly ordered me to stop, cut off the extruding pile and send everybody home. When I asked why, one of them stated that retesting of the soils had determined that the soil contamination was below the limits mandating the cleanup. The next day provided me an explanation. The Michigan DNR had lost a legal battle over who was responsible for the costs. I was given two weeks to remove Weston equipment from the site and an expenses paid move back to Alabama.

I got a nice welcome back to my job on the South 40. The men hated the less experienced guy who had filled in for me. The timing had again been perfect; my girls joined their old friends as the fall school term was just beginning. It was a little difficult managing without my wife who was still building, but I soon got used to the routine. It was about that time when, reading the interoffice mail on the LAN that I recognized the chance of a lifetime.

Weston had won the contract to clean up Clark Air Field in Angeles City, Philippines. Ever the opportunist I used my contacts back at Corporate Headquarters to discover which manager was leading the project.

Ed B. was a senior executive you had to love. His voice rang with confidence and competence. When I informed him that my wife was the Niece of a prominent member of the Cory Aquino Government, he could see the utility in sending me to Clark as on-site manager. The impressive profits of my prior projects and sterling safety record sealed the deal. Ed listed me and a young Filipino/American as co-site managers. Soon Ed sent me photographs, records of base activities and soil test results to aid me in formulating a remediation plan. We were sitting pretty. Weston not only had the general contract, but also the oversight contract as well.

Using the materials Ed sent I soon roughed out plans and identified the equipment required. My work was submitted to Weston’s professional writing staff. Upon her return my wife was elated. All the while she had lived in the USA she had pined for life in her home town of Dipolog. Now we had a fine home by the sea there and a chance to live in it.

I remained on the Childersburg project waiting for the word to move to Angeles. The word never came. It seemed there was one delay after another. Finally the Childersburg project was winding down and my future with Weston became clouded in doubt. Finally Ed explained what the problem was. The US House and Senate had voted to take responsibility for the cleanup but never appropriated the funds. The project was in limbo.

As usual, events provided a short term rescue. Weston’s little toaster unit got a contract to treat some contaminated soil at Otis Air Force Base situated on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Mike P. was having trouble manning the project, largely because Jacobs, the general contractor had insisted that Weston personal sign a contract for an unreasonably low hourly wage. None of the well qualified men wanted to go that far from home for small money. Mike had not even asked me, but a younger, less qualified Safety Officer had already turned him down. I told Mike to leave it to me. Not only would I sign, I would assemble a crack team to accompany me. My man Jim was slated for manager.

Ever the racketeer, I assembled my candidates in a secret meeting. I gave them the facts of life. Because the project involved Federal funding on government land, contractors were required to pay prevailing wages. I already knew prevailing wage there was more than double the contracts we were to sign. My plan was to get my Union Official, Joe, to contact the Local Union Business agents and provide the date of our arrival. The agents would take care of the rest.

To my shock and dismay the Local Unions in Massachusetts took no interest in the project and quit returning Joe’s calls. At that point we had all signed and were on the road to Falmouth. I was on a pay phone in Virginia when Joe told me he had given up, and wished me good luck.

As soon I was shown to my office at Otis, I got on the phone. I called two different Locals; neither would talk to me. I did the only thing I could: I called the Massachusetts Labor Relations Board and explained things in simple and direct terms. The man on the phone said not to worry; they would quickly resolve the issue in our favor. The next day a sullen Mike P. summoned me to the office; he had flown in to kick off the project. He said the bad news was the labor contracts were null and void. The good news was the entire team would get prevailing wage; and since there was no local Union to pay fringe benefits, we would have to accept a comparable amount paid direct to our pay checks. I did the math in my head. We were getting three times the hourly for which we had contracted.

The local newspaper heralded Weston’s arrival as front page news and provided an additional two page op-ed. This began my education on Air Force base contamination and ground water plumes. The gist of the front page article was a big hooray that after years of study and multi-millions spent in research, at last a company was was actually going to accomplish something tangible. The article went on to recall the history of the studies and how none of them had led to remediation. The op-ed piece occupied the back two pages and diagramed the problem for Cape Cod residents and visitors. In brief, the entire water table of Cape Cod was at risk or already seriously contaminated with effluents originating from Otis. Fifty years of sloppy waste policy on the sandy Cape had taken its toll. Jet fuels, solvents, waste oils, and industrial chemicals had all found their way into the aquifer and developed into huge underground plumes much like the plumes from smoke stacks. They spread in every direction. All the ground water of the surrounding towns was affected.

Weston’s job was limited to remediating already excavated soils from the Fire Training Area to prevent continued leaching of the volatiles used into the water table. With Jim as site manager and no need to wear two hats, I settled into the cushiest and most profitable months of my career with Weston. That allowed plenty of time to learn more about Air Base contamination. I continued to pursue Ed regarding the dwindling chances of managing the Clark Field clean up. What I learned was very discouraging.

The contaminated ground water presented the same problems and implied solution I had found at the Cordova Chemical job in Muskegon. But there was also a problem of scale. There were greater quantities of pollutants, and they were rapidly spreading. The best indication was large scale water treatment over generations. My studies of Clark Field indicated contaminated soils and a large number of rusty leaking drums. I truly realized the importance of the Clark project to the population living anywhere near the base.

I left the Otis project to take a consulting manager position on a five state project for a confidential client. I stayed in touch with Ed. When he lost all hope of doing the project I started planning my resignation. In August of 1998, I took a leave of absence, moved my family back to Indiana, and signed up for work with my Local Union’s dispatch office. In November of 2002, I retired and took up residence in my home in Dipolog, the Provincial Capital of Zamboanga del Norte, Philippines

May of 2005, I left my wife and moved to Angeles City. That same year I bought a light weight motorcycle and toured every road at the former Clark Air Field. I was unable to find visible remnants of contaminated base facilities. I did find the home of the Commanding General and a beautiful chalet where visiting dignitaries had stayed. Additionally I identified old barracks presently used by the Philippine Air Force. In more remote areas I found dilapidated homes abandoned and left to rot. The rusty drums had been removed or simply covered.

When I decided to write this humble piece, I searched the net for more recent information on both Otis and Clark. Otis has been renamed, and Cape Cod is still at risk do the contaminated aquifer. Remediation is ongoing. Clark and the Angeles area present a starker picture. And it just got more sinister. My links to articles have started going dead as I write this. But this I can say the following with authority. In 2000 a certain Senator Tadad asserted that he was confident the USA would take responsibility and finance a cleanup. In 2004 the Philippine Senate passed a resolution stating a legal case for U.S. responsibility with a treat to take it to the U.N. and World Court. Residents of nearby Dau have reported cases of birth defects and childhood illness attributed to wells contaminated by Clark Field pollutants. A 2013 posting indicated as of that time the U.S. had provided no remediation and no compensation.

All I lost was the chance to earn first world wages in a third world country. But the third world country happens to be the one that I love. My body will be laid to rest here in the hopes that my spirit will remain.

As to the new bases agreement: It is important to recall that in the Battle for Manila there were exponentially more casualties in the Filipino civilian population than in the American and Japanese combatants.

In conclusion: Strict oversight by qualified Filipinos is absolutely necessary to prevent another environmental disaster.

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