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England Resists Pressure To Resume Live Fire On Vieques
By DALE EISMAN
February 13, 2002
The Navy's civilian leader resisted congressional calls Tuesday for a resumption of live bombing on Vieques Island, saying the service continues to search for alternatives to its much-disputed training range there.
"This is not as easy as deciding what I'd like to do," Navy Secretary Gordon H. England told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Resuming live fire on the range, which uniformed leaders say is the Navy's best East Coast training area, would raise "security issues" and could have serious environmental consequences, England suggested.
"The people of Vieques have a say in this," he added.
Only nonexplosive ordnance has been used on Vieques since May 2000. Earlier, dozens of residents camped on the 900-acre range for more than a year to block all bombing and shelling. That protest came after an errant bomb killed a civilian employed by the Navy as a security guard.
The Vieques imbroglio has also led to arrests of hundreds of demonstrators who sought to force the Navy to leave the 20-mile-long island, just east of the main island of Puerto Rico .
The protests, which have attracted worldwide attention and drawn a parade of celebrity supporters to Vieques , have been muted since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon.
But in an advisory referendum last summer, more than two-thirds of Vieques voters said they want the Navy out immediately. And after months of negotiations with Puerto Rican officials, who say 60 years of bombing has despoiled the island, the Bush administration decided last year to give up the range by May 2003.
Despite that, Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., who has led a three- year effort to preserve the range, said Tuesday that uniformed leaders continue to tell him privately that Vieques is vital to the proper training of sailors and Marines.
At least five times during Tuesday's hearing on the administration's 2003 military budget proposal, Inhofe pressed England to permit live firing.
In each case, the Navy secretary said fleet commanders had not specifically requested him to reopen the range.
"We train our people very effectively, as evidenced by the magnificent performance we've had over in the Arabian Gulf," England added.
The sparring clearly irritated Inhofe, and outraged Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky.
"I'm embarrassed for you," he told England, adding that he would have opposed England's appointment last year had the secretary ducked such questions then.
The Navy has spent about $11 million on new fencing and other measures to secure the area, England said Tuesday; more would be needed if live fire resumed, he suggested.
England said a study group, led by retired senior military officers, is to report to him this spring on potential alternatives to Vieques .
At Inhofe's urging, Congress agreed last year not to permit the Navy to surrender the range unless its top uniformed leaders were willing to certify - in writing - that they have alternatives in place at least as effective as the Vieques range in training sailors and Marines.