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Calderón Uses Health Scares To Stall Navy Training

by Robert Becker

March 23, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The government of Puerto Rico, under the Popular Democratic Party leadership of Gov. Sila M. Calderón, has opted to make the Navy’s future in Vieques an issue of " human rights," centered on the dubious claim that Navy bombing and shelling has harmed the population of some 9,000 residents.

Calderón campaigned on a promise to force a permanent halt to Navy training and their immediate departure from the offshore island., but she has, on taking office, taken on the less-risky strategy of stalling the resumption of Navy bombing and shelling. She has done that with her "health" strategy, which asserts that Navy shelling causes the heretofore unknown "vibroacoustic disease," a thickening of the membrane around the human heart caused by underwater shock waves. These shock waves, the theory’s proponents assert, are set in motion by the sonic booms of Navy guns, which travel a distance of 10 miles underwater and cause the heart abnormality in swimmers and fishermen far outside the gunnery range.

While Calderón has made great political use of the study’s findings, she has curiously refused to release the full study itself for review by outside scientific and medical experts. The study, which was performed by a team from the Ponce School of Medicine, found abnormalities in 49 of 50 subjects selected, an astonishingly high rate. Such startling findings would normally be submitted to the authors’ medical peers for review, analysis and duplication, but Calderón has shown little enthusiasm to conform to the dictates of accepted scientific research.

The other leg of the health strategy is the claim that Navy bombing has released heavy metals into the environment that have caused, in Calderón’s words, " very high" rates of cancer on the island. Calderón’s evidence, anecdotal in nature, for this is even flimsier than for the vibroacoustic disease theory. Puerto Rico’s Cancer Registry has not been updated since 1989, so there is no statistical base to begin with. More importantly, there has been no evidence uncovered linking cancer on Vieques to Navy bombing. The attitude of many Navy opponents was best expressed by a pro-independence politician, who remarked that since there was no other visible reason for cancer on Vieques, it has to be the Navy.

A few limited studies of environmental and health issues have been done on Vieques. One, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, found only normal levels of the heavy metals supposedly released by Navy bombing.

Another study, by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), found no Navy-related contamination of the island’s well drinking water supply. Agency scientists held a public meeting on Vieques on March 14, but thuggish local protesters disrupted the meeting, chanting and marching around the hearing room before the astonished scientists. The protesters dismissed the ATSDR personnel as public relations specialists for the Navy.

Proper study of the Vieques health issues would take years, which Calderón is banking on in her campaign to stall further Navy training on the island. But Defense Department and Navy brass are growing visibly irritated by Calderón’s campaign of obfuscation and delay, and signs point o a resumption of the battle group Enterprise training in April, well before any epidemiological results are in. The ATSDR is trying to coax recalcitrant Calderón administration officials to turn over their vibroacoustic study, but have met with roadblocks and delays at every turn. Some Calderón critics have suggested the commonwealth would find a more fruitful area of study among the residents near Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, where residents daily are subjected to ear-splitting engine noise levels from departing jet aircraft.

The vibroacoustic noise theory was first propounded as the result of a study of Portuguese aircraft engine factory workers, who were subjected to 10 years of steady exposure to loud noise levels at close proximity. It’s chief proponent in the Calderón camp is Washington, D.C. attorney Richard Copaken. Copaken led the successful drive to force the navy out of Culebra in the 1970s, one offshoot of which was the Navy stepped up its activities on Vieques. Another offshoot is that Copaken once again is in the pay of a Popular Democratic Party administration in Puerto Rico, this time spearheading the oust-the-Navy-from- Vieques movement.

In a Jan. 17, 2001 letter to Calderón, Navy Secretary Richard Danzig said that 25 years of Navy research found no harm to humans from sonic boom noise levels such as those caused by Navy shelling. Danzig said he supported objective study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of the effects of exposure to underwater sound of what Calderón called " the Jacuzzi effect."

Robert Becker, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at:

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