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Associated Press Newswires
Puerto Ricans Accuse Navy Of Poisoning Environment, Causing Illness
By IAN JAMES
February 17, 2001
VIEQUES , Puerto Rico (AP) - For six decades, bombs and artillery shells have rained on the U.S. Navy's training ground on the small Puerto Rican island of Vieques , sending clouds of smoke and dust wafting in the breeze toward nearby towns.
Year after year, people swam at the island's beaches, camped on its dusty ground and ate its seafood and vegetables.
But recent studies by Puerto Rican researchers have detected toxic levels of heavy metals in crabs, edible plants and human hair, and their findings are sharpening already intense opposition among Puerto Ricans to the Navy's bombing exercises in the U.S. territory.
The Navy disputes the researchers' conclusions. But the Environmental Protection Agency says contamination levels repeatedly have been higher than permitted in waters around the island, although the agency says it has found no indication of imminent danger to Vieques residents.
While no comprehensive medical studies have been conducted, many islanders say they believe pollutants released during military exercises have poisoned their land and their bodies. Some on Vieques , where fishing is the only major industry besides tourism, now are afraid to eat the island's fish and vegetables.
"Sometimes I'm afraid to breathe," said Eva Luisa Torres, a 46-year-old school administrator who has survived two types of cancer.
Migdalia Rivera blames the bombing for her severe asthma; Lidia Adams for the cancer that her 3-year-old great-granddaughter has fought for most of her brief life; and Luz Minerva Ortiz Feliciano for the death of her baby born with a heart defect.
About 3,600 of the island's 9,400 residents have joined a lawsuit seeking compensation for illnesses they argue were caused by the exercises.
The Navy maintains its own studies have turned up no hazards and says studies that suggest otherwise are unscientific and flawed.
"The Navy is very concerned about the health of Viequenses," said spokesman Lt. Jeff Gordon. "There have been a lot of studies that really merit third-party review."
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show the Navy has for years violated an EPA permit allowing it to discharge limited levels of contaminants into the sea. The documents indicate heavy metal contamination repeatedly surpassed water quality standards when munitions landed in the sea.
Between 1984 and 1999, the documents show, the Navy reported excessive levels of cadmium - a suspected carcinogen - on 30 occasions in waters off the bombing range. The reported level was 20 times the limit on average and once, in 1993, 240 times the limit.
Lead, also known to cause health problems, was detected in the waters at excessive levels 25 times, including one day in 1997 when it reached 105 times the limit.
The Navy was required to sample the water at least twice in any month when munitions fell into the sea, and to submit quarterly reports.
"Typically, there was some violation that occurred each quarter," said Murray Lantner, an EPA environmental engineer.
Other potentially hazardous heavy metals reported at excessive levels included arsenic, chromium, manganese and mercury.
Asked about it, the Navy said the "apparent violations" stemmed from data it had "collected and analyzed with techniques that EPA has stated publicly are inadequate and provide inaccurate results."
EPA spokeswoman Mary Mears disagreed, saying the techniques used by the Navy are accurate, even though new methods may be more precise when testing for heavy metals in salt water.
"We stand by the data from the old sampling method," she said. "The data shows that there were violations of the permit."
Mears said Navy officials had "certified the validity of the sampling results every time they sent a sample to us."
The Navy said samples it took and analyzed last year using new techniques showed the sea around Vieques was free of heavy metal contamination. At that time, live ammunition wasn't being used.
The EPA is negotiating with the Navy to ensure future compliance. Despite the violations, Mears said, the agency has no evidence that there is an immediate health risk.
Heavy metals - often found in military munitions - can accumulate in human tissue and stay there for years. Some types may be associated with asthma and illnesses of the central nervous system, kidneys, lungs, heart and brain.
Prolonged exposure to abnormal levels of chromium, cadmium, nickel and arsenic has been shown to induce cancer, said Wei Zheng, a professor specializing in metal toxicology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
The violations suggest there may be high levels of heavy metals in the soil on the range, stirred up each time bombs and shells strike it, said Gordon Rumore, a retired environmental specialist from the Pennsylvania health department now living on Vieques .
Maria Ortiz, 68, had a cancerous tumor removed from a lung in 1998. Her mother died of stomach cancer. Cancer also killed three uncles and four cousins. All lived on Vieques .
"It must be the pollution here," she said.
Tests of hair from 49 civilians last year found 44 percent had toxic levels of mercury or lead, said Dr. Carmen Ortiz Roque, an epidemiologist. She said some also had toxic levels of cadmium, and she was horrified by the high percentage affected.
"The first sample that I did, I couldn't sleep for two nights," she said.
A study led by biologist Arturo Massol Deya of the University of Puerto Rico found levels of cadmium considered toxic for human consumption in land crabs on the firing range in 1999. The crabs aren't eaten on Vieques .
In a new study, Massol found toxic levels of lead, cobalt, nickel and manganese in edible plants such as chili pepper, mango, pumpkin, pineapple and banana.
Massol's theory is that dust laden with heavy metals from the range drifts to plants, which absorb the contaminants through their leaves or roots.
Vieques has no industries that could produce such high levels of heavy metals, Massol said. The biologist's work was financed largely by a group that opposes the Navy exercises, but he insists the science is solid. His studies have yet to be published in a scientific journal.
Some Puerto Rican researchers cite local government figures indicating the Vieques cancer rate was about 27 percent higher than on the main island of Puerto Rico from 1985 through 1989. The cancer rate increased from the early 1970s to that period, said epidemiologist Cruz Maria Nazario, who compiled the figures.
Because later data is incomplete, further study is needed, she said.
The Navy notes that Vieques ' cancer rate - though higher in the latest figures than in the '70s - has been both lower and higher than the main island's. Gordon, the Navy spokesman, also cites higher cancer rates on the U.S. mainland.
"It is difficult to have so much uncertainty in a situation where one wants clear and unambiguous answers," said Dr. Michael Thun, head of epidemiological research for the American Cancer Society. "The step that is always helpful is to document the facts of the situation: What are the cancers that have occurred? What are the numbers? When have they occurred?"
The Puerto Rican Department of Health has pledged a new effort to document the island's cancer cases.
Nazario has compiled government mortality statistics indicating that the Vieques death rate from all causes was 20 percent higher than on the main island in 1994, 40 percent higher in 1995, 41 percent higher in 1997 and 19 percent higher in 1998. Figures for 1996 and since 1998 weren't available, Nazario said.
"There isn't enough information to know the cause of the high mortality on Vieques ," she said.
Gordon questioned the significance of figures that don't take into account lifestyle, population differences and access to health care. Vieques has no hospital.
"In smaller communities, rates can fluctuate because the population size isn't large enough to provide stable rates," Thun said. "What is needed is more information."
A team from the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is assessing whether the bombing is affecting health.
There are few visible signs of environmental harm in civilian areas of Vieques , which lies 6 miles east of the main island and is fondly called "Isla Nena," or Baby Island.
Nevertheless, debate emerged in January about the effects of low-frequency noise from the firing range. Doctors found 49 of 50 volunteers tested on Vieques had a thickening of the pericardium, the sack that surrounds the heart. A control group on the main island was free of the little-known condition called vibroacoustic disease.
Navy Secretary Richard Danzig responded in a letter to Puerto Rico 's newly inaugurated governor, Sila Calderon, insisting there is no proof that sound from the exercises is harmful.
Calderon, however, is urging an immediate halt to Navy exercises, charging that "the people of Vieques have been massacred by the Navy for 60 years."
The training ground has been the subject of protests since a bombing accident in 1999 killed civilian guard David Sanes on the range. Demonstrators invaded the range and occupied it for a year, preventing exercises until U.S. marshals forcibly removed them last May.
After the accident, the Navy agreed to use only inert ammunition and limit training to 90 days a year, down from 180 days.
Islanders also express concern about depleted uranium ammunition, which has become an issue in the Balkans. The Navy admitted accidentally firing 263 of the armor-piercing shells on the Vieques range in 1999. Only 116 rounds were recovered.
The U.S. government insists there is no proof the slightly radioactive ammunition caused diseases from use in the Gulf War or the Balkans. Independent medical experts say more study is needed to determine any links to illnesses.
Rolando Garcia, however, suspects such contamination is the reason he has no energy and no hair.
"It fell out little by little," the 31-year-old said. Doctors have not diagnosed his illness, but fecal tests found high levels of uranium, lead and arsenic, he said.
With studies indicating high lead levels, children's blood should be tested urgently, Rumore said. Lead has been shown to decrease children's IQ.
At least five newborn Vieques babies have died since September. The mother of one, born with a hole in her heart, blames the Navy. Parents of the other four don't suggest a link.
But former mayor Radames Tirado is concerned. "Why are they dying?" he asked.
On the Net:
U.S. Navy site: http://www.navyvieques.navy.mil
Anti-Navy site: http://www.geocities.com/viequeswar