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Associated Press Newswires

U.S. Navy Says Ship On Sea Bottom Off Vieques Isn't Radioactive; Island Legislature Plans Hearings


September 9, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Associated Press Newswires. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - A ship once used in nuclear tests in the Pacific is stirring controversy in Puerto Rico three decades after the U.S. military sunk it off the outlying island of Vieques .

The Navy says the decommissioned USS Killen was used in nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the late 1950s and was moved to the waters off Vieques in 1963, where for about 10 years it was used as a target ship during Navy bombing exercises.

When it was no longer useful, the 376-foot-long (113-meter-long) destroyer was sunk 300 meters (yards) off the Caribbean island in the early 1970s, Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Kim Dixon said Monday.

"Recent and past environmental studies of the site and the surrounding area have shown the Killen is in no way a threat," Dixon said. "The ship does not have any detected radioactivity."

But some doubt the Navy's word in this U.S. territory, where decades of military training has bred resentment and suspicion.

Puerto Rico 's Senate is planning hearings later this month on whether the USS Killen should be raised to test for radioactivity and to determine the contents of several hundred drums aboard the ship.

The Navy maintains the drums contain only sand and that a survey last year confirmed the site isn't hazardous.

But Puerto Rican Sen. Roberto Prats said the public safety commission he leads will investigate whether the sunken ship poses any danger to human health or the marine environment.

"If there is a problem with contamination or radioactivity, the proper thing to do would be to take all of it away," he said. "It shouldn't be contaminating Puerto Rican waters."

The Navy believes the ship, which rests 30 feet (9 meters) underwater on a sandy bottom, actually has helped the environment by serving as a reef, Dixon said.

The ship is likely to figure in future political debate about the Navy's presence on Vieques .

Opponents say the exercises harm the environment and health of the island's 9,100 residents. The Navy denies the claim.

President George W. Bush has promised the Navy will withdraw from Vieques by May 2003.

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