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Noise Regulations Will Break Vieques Accord

by Robert Becker

April 20, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Gov. Sila Calderón now has given the Navy grounds to declare the Vieques deal null and void.

But whether the Navy chooses to do so remains to be seen.

Calderón introduced in the Puerto Rico Legislature on Wednesday a bill designed to bar Navy training on Vieques set to begin April 27. The bill, targeted solely at the Navy, would amend Puerto Rico’s environmental laws so that Navy gunnery practice would be impermissable under new noise levels.

It is a gamble for Calderón, as the bill is unlikely to stop the Navy bombing and shelling -- which she has repeatedly promised she would do. Her bill is unlikely to withstand a federal legal challenge. Of much greater import is that the passage of the noise regulations, expected to happen within a few days, will be regarded in Washington, D.C. as a clear breach of the accord on Vieques that was reached between the Clinton administration and that of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló in January, 2000. If that happens, Calderón will have squandered the only opportunity the people of Vieques have had in 60 years to determine their future vis-a-vis the Navy.

Calderón’s actions, moreover, will damage Puerto Rico-U.S. relations on other issues, such as federal economic assistance to the island, whose per capita income is just half of Mississippi’s, the poorest state.

Calderón reacted after it became clear the Navy would proceed with its Vieques training with dummy bombs and shells, which it is permitted to do under the existing Accord. Navy spokesmen reacted to Calderón’s move with initial caution, saying they wanted to study the legal ramifications before responding.

Under the terms of Congressional legislation that implemented the Vieques agreement, the Navy Secretary must certify to Congress that Puerto Rico is keeping its end of the bargain before $40 million in development funds is released to Vieques and before 8,000 acres of Navy land on the western half of Vieques is turned over to the Vieques municipality and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The November 6 referendum on Vieques, the most important part of the Accord, would also be discarded if the pact were invalidated.

It is now up to Acting Navy Secretary Robert Pirie to notify Congress that the government of Puerto Rico is in non-compliance with the Vieques accord, which specifically provides that the commonwealth will not pass any laws interfering with Navy training. But Pirie also may choose to wait and see whether Calderón fulfills her security obligations under the agreement when Navy training resumes. If she fails to restrain the demonstrations expected to materialize when the Navy resumes training, Pirie will have a second reason to find the Puerto Rican government in non-compliance.

The Navy, however, is also facing certain limitations as it tries to out-maneuver Calderón. U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, in the House, are moving to nullify the accord. They want the situation to revert to the status quo, before the April 19, 1999 bombing that killed civilian security guard David Sanes Rodríguez.

But some Navy officers privately say they don’t want it to go that far. Already conscious of their bad image among viequenses, they fear that nullifying the Accord wound result in a public relations debacle that would make it impossible for them to continue training on the island, under any circumstances. They believe that however long the odds, winning the November referendum is their only hope of staying on Vieques.

Calderón, for transparent political reasons, is trying to portray her action on the noise legislation as not in violation of the Accord. Calderón’s management style is to save all important announcements for herself. But last Wednesday, she sent Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodríguez to announce to the press the filing of the noise regulations.

Rodríguez argued the regulations didn’t violated the Accord, as the federal government already had done that when it changed some of the terms and delayed the land transfer, slated for May 1. Congress had made some minor changes, requiring that the 8,000 acres on the western half of the island be shared by the municipality and by the USFWS, instead of it going wholly to the municipality.

Calderón clearly is engaging in double-talk on the Accord. While maneuvering to avoid being blamed for breaking it, she also, in comments made to reporters on April 16, declared that no Accord exists.
“What agreement?” she said in response to reporters’ questions. “No agreement exists on Vieques.”

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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