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New York Daily News

Hazarding A Guess On Vieques ' Ills


June 26, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Daily News, L.P. All Rights Reserved.

Despite all the protests against bombing exercises on Vieques , few in this country have bothered to examine claims that Navy maneuvers on the tiny island have created major health and environmental problems.

Puerto Rican scientists and government officials point to a cancer rate that is 27% higher among the 9,300 people who live on Vieques than it is in the rest of Puerto Rico . (The Vieques cancer rate was lower than the big island's in the 1960s.)

In addition, infant mortality on Vieques is 54% higher than in the rest of Puerto Rico , and rates of heart illness, hypertension and asthma are also higher.

Pentagon officials deny any adverse effects on local people from 60 years of bombing, but the Navy has not been searching that hard.

Take just two potentially toxic sources - heavy metals and depleted uranium.

In a recent health survey, 13% of a group of Vieques people were found to have abnormal lead levels.

Since the firing range is off-limits to civilians, and drinking water on Vieques is piped in from the main island, where did these toxics come from? The likeliest sources are seafood and contaminated air.

Last year, two scientists from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez detected high levels of lead, cobalt, cadmium, nickel and manganese in crabs and in plant life near the Vieques impact area.

In the case of cadmium, they found levels 1,000 times greater than the World Health Organization's maximum tolerable dose for humans.

Most troubling was what the two scientists concluded about aquatic plants around Vieques . They said that levels of lead in manatee grass in the Live Impact Area showed evidence of "the transport of contaminants through the marine food chain."

They warned that the levels they found, if consumed, represent "critically dangerous doses."

Chaff in the wind

As for airborne contamination, Puerto Rican environmentalists point to a September 1998 federal report, "Environmental Protection: DOD [Department of Defense] Management Issues Related to Chaff," issued by the General Accounting Office.

Since World War II, the Air Force and Navy have used millions of bundles each year of "chaff" - minute strips of fiberglass or aluminum that are tossed from combat planes or shot from battleships. The bundles are then dispersed over wide areas to confuse enemy radar by presenting false targets.

In 1998, our military used 2.1 million bundles of chaff in training exercises at places like the Vieques bombing range. A single bundle can weigh anywhere from 7 ounces to more than 40 pounds and can contain hundreds of millions of fibers.

Until the late 1980s, chaff contained a significant percentage of lead. Since chaff fibers are tiny, clouds of it can travel for great distances and create havoc.

In 1985, "chaff accidently blown over San Diego, Calif., during a Navy exercise 75 to 200 miles from the coast affected power to 65,000 customers and disrupted air traffic control," the GAO study reported.

Only a handful of studies of the effects of chaff have been conducted, and none has shown any adverse impact on animal or plant life. All but one of those studies were conducted by the military itself.

"Studies by DOD and others . . . continue to create questions in the public's mind about the health and environmental effects of chaff," the GAO report added, criticizing the Pentagon for "not systematically [following] up on these reports to determine the merits of any outstanding questions." Unexplained radioactivity Finally, there is the issue of depleted uranium. The Pentagon has acknowledged that on one occasion in early 1999, a combat plane mistakenly fired depleted uranium shells in the Vieques range.

But during last year's civilian occupation of the range, nuclear engineer Frank Jimenez used a Geiger counter to find eight different sites on the range where radioactivity was 50-to-200% above background levels.

Jimenez found the highest levels of radioactivity in spots where the Navy had bulldozed the ground and buried equipment previously used as targets.

His findings alone cry out for an independent assessment of what has occurred in Vieques . If the admirals are right in their claims that the bombings are environmentally safe, they should be the first to welcome such a probe.

If they're wrong, all the chaff in China won't keep camouflaging the truth.

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