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The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA
Plan For Vieques Strikes Could Bring Showdown
By DALE EISMAN
April 17, 2001
The Pentagon and the government of Puerto Rico appear headed toward a critical passage in their struggle over the Navy's bombing range on Vieques Island, with Puerto Rico 's governor preparing legal challenges to use of the range and local activists promising demonstrations and perhaps a fresh attempt to occupy Navy land to block military exercises.
The Navy announced last week that it plans a fresh round of bombing and shelling - all with dummy ordnance - on the 900-acre Vieques range beginning April 27. Ships and planes from the carrier Enterprise battle group, scheduled to leave Norfolk on April 25 for a six-month deployment, apparently will take part in the exercise.
The Navy's plan has drawn a furious protest from Gov. Sila M. Calderon, who has accused the service and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of reneging on an agreement to suspend training on Vieques pending the outcome of independent studies on the health of the island's 9,000 residents.
Calderon argues that there is evidence that noise generated by Navy exercises may be linked to unusually high rates of cancer and vibroacoustic disease - a heart ailment - among Vieques residents.
Acting Navy Secretary Robert B. Pirie Jr. challenged those claims in a letter to the governor last week, citing a finding by Johns Hopkins University researchers that available evidence provides "an insufficient basis" to support the health claims.
Calderon "is very committed to protecting the health of her people," said Richard D. Copaken, a Washington lawyer who has worked with Puerto Rican authorities on legislation that would attempt to block shelling on the range by placing restrictions on noise in nearby waters.
Calderon has suggested that Puerto Rico 's legislature could approve the noise restrictions this week. Once they're in place, her government may seek a court order barring the Navy from firing its 5- inch guns at the Vieques range.
Under a deal struck last year by then-President Clinton and then- Gov. Pedro Rossello, the Navy agreed to let Vieques voters decide the future of the range in a referendum, now set for Nov. 6. The service also promised to surrender by May1 several thousand acres it owns at the western end of Vieques .
Jeff Farrow, a former Clinton aide who helped negotiate the agreement, said Monday that Calderon's noise legislation would break the deal.
"I think she has broken the deal already," Farrow added, citing Calderon's withdrawal of specially trained riot police who had been providing security at the entrance to the Navy's main compound on Vieques .
On Capitol Hill, some Republican lawmakers appear ready to back a tougher line toward Calderon. Reps. Bob Stump, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and James V. Hansen, chairman of the Resources Committee, have written President Bush to urge that U.S. Marshals be assigned to patrol the perimeter of the Navy compound on Vieques .
The two congressmen also urged that Bush hold off on the May 1 land transfer and suspend payments of the $40million economic aid package. Given Calderon's position, "the federal government is in no way bound by the accord reached last year," they argued.
Also possible, other congressional insiders said, is a fresh look at laws that allow Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to claim most of the proceeds of the federal excise tax on rum, a major part of Puerto Rico 's economy.
Reach Dale Eisman at (703) 913-9872 or email@example.com