Enid’s Marshallese community, which makes up approximately 5 percent of the local population, traces its history to the Cold War, to the availability of local jobs and to ongoing environmental changes that threaten the future of the Marshallese people’s island home.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is a collection of about 1,200 islands and atolls in the Micronesian region of the western Pacific Ocean, about 2,700 miles southwest of Hawaii.
Japanese troops occupied the islands during World War II, until they were forced out by American forces in fierce fighting during the Gilbert and Marshall Islands Campaign, from November, 1943 to February, 1944.
After the war, the islands became a testing ground for American nuclear weapons.
The U.S. detonated 67 bombs on the island nation between 1946 and 1958, including the 15-megaton Bravo test on Bikini Atoll. The Bravo test yielded more than twice the explosive power as was intended, dropping radioactive material on surrounding inhabited islands.
Cleanup of the fallout from the tests in the Enewetak Atoll began in the 1970s, with 110,000 cubic yards of radioactive material collected on Runit Island.
The radioactive material was buried under an 18-inch-thick concrete dome, known as the Runit Dome. According to a 2013 Department of Energy report, sea erosion is undermining that dome, causing its content to leak.
For those who remain in the Marshall Islands, health concerns linger from the Cold War-era testing.
In a 2010 report, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found 170 out of about 10,600 anticipated cancer cases among the Marshallese population “might be attributable to radiation exposures resulting from nuclear testing fallout.”
A separate 2005 National Cancer Institute study found the risk of developing cancer was roughly one in three for Marshallese islanders who lived in areas that had been exposed to radiation.
The United States and the Marshall Islands signed a Compact of Free Association (COFA) agreement in 1983, three years before the Marshall Islands achieved independence as the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
The agreement was created as a compensation after the nuclear testing program, according to the agreement.
COFA allowed Marshallese islanders to come to the U.S., to live and work as nonresident aliens.
Janet Cordell, Enid Community Clinic executive director, told the News & Eagle in a 2017 interview some of the first Marshallese arrivals were students at Phillips University.
Others followed, many accepting work at Advance Foods, which later became AdvancePierre Foods and then Tyson Foods, and the Marshallese population now in Enid is estimated at about 2,800 people.
An even greater number has settled near Springdale, Ark., which has a Marshallese population of about 6,000 and its own RMI consulate.
According to the Department of the Interior, about 20 percent of the Marshallese population left the islands between 1999 and 2011.
Those who have come to the U.S. leave behind a nation that still is partially uninhabitable because of U.S. nuclear tests.
For now, COFA allows them to live and work in the United States, and to create a new home in a nation that for 12 years detonated nuclear weapons over their old home.
It is unknown if that option will remain for them when COFA comes up for renewal in 2023.