The Other Vieques Battle: Commonwealth 'Far Behind' On Cleanup Issue

by John Marino

November 8, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOWhen Gov. Calderón announced last month that she had received "official confirmation" that the Navy would leave Vieques next May, she declined to field reporters' questions on the need for cleanup at the 60-year-old bombing range -- saying she did not want to focus on "negative thoughts" on what should be a day of celebration.

Now, a few weeks after Calderón's declaration of victory on the Vieques issue, an important deadline set by the Environmental Protection Agency for public comment on Navy cleanup investigations at Camp García passed nearly unnoticed.

That's too bad because the public -- and the commonwealth government -- should be raising their voices in collective unison over the need to fully investigate the potential contamination from decades of Navy target practice and other activities at the Vieques range.

Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodríguez, who appears to be taking the lead on the issue, has been tightlipped about discussions between the commonwealth and the Navy over the environment and cleanup issues. But most of those conversations have been based on trying to encourage the Navy to tailor their exercises in a way to reduce environmental harm to the least amount possible, according to published reports.

Precious little in the way of discussion appears to be going on in terms of negotiations over the parameters of Navy cleanup. One environmentalist close to the Vieques issue said: "The important battleground of the cleanup issue is the negotiation between the government and the Navy. Nothing is going on in that respect. The government is very far behind."

Friday's deadline for public comment was on the Resource Recovery Act Facility Investigation Work Plan, a voluminous Navy document consisting of several studies that has been submitted to the EPA for review.

The plan stems from a January 2000 EPA consent order in which the Navy said it would assess the need for cleanup and conduct those found necessary on the sprawling Camp García military reservation it is slated to abandon next May.

The plan centers on 12 areas that have been identified with having the potential for contamination. It does not encompass the live impact area, at the eastern end of the military base, which the Navy is still using for target practice. Cleanup issues concerning the range will be taken up in the future, according to the EPA.

Few in Puerto Rico's environmental movement and within the government appear to have a working knowledge of the legal and scientific complexities involved in measuring the potential for contamination.

And the fact that the Navy cites studies and documents in its investigation dating back more than 20 years, when the Romero Barceló administration first sued the Navy on environmental grounds, makes the cleanup issue even more complex.

Those directly affected by the issue, Vieques residents, are even further out of the loop. It doesn't help that the documentation is in English either.

The few environmental activists abreast of the issue complain that the Navy work plan is based on dated, limited studies and samplings that do not adequately measure the potential for contamination caused by more than 60 years of Navy bombardment.

For example, current Navy work plans reference a 1978 water study used to show that military activities did not pollute the island's ground water. But critics say the study is flawed because it uses as "natural background" water samples taken from a lagoon on the bombing range with a lagoon on the western end that had been used for a munitions disposal site.

Others point to inconsistencies in Navy documents, which describe the bombing range itself as 3,600 acres in some reports and 900 acres in others. Likewise, the Camp García landfill, which the Navy says in documents is likely to be highly contaminated, is described as both 200 acres and 50 acres.

New developments -- such as the recent revelation that a sunken destroyer off the Vieques coast had taken part in nuclear tests in the Pacific and the Pentagon admission that chemical weapons simulants were tested in Vieques -- may require a more comprehensive investigation than is currently required. The EPA has never been told by the Navy about either issue, but officials now say they are asking for that information.

Others say that the EPA has exercised limited authority over the Navy; correspondence between the two entities shows that the Navy often ignores EPA recommendations.

In one example, the EPA tells the Navy that its soil sampling is inadequate to determine the contents of the Camp García landfill and if it is polluting adjacent lands.

But Navy officials respond that they won't drill soil borings as suggested by the EPA because it would "pose several risks to the health and safety of the on-site workers as well as creating a potential conduit for migration of potential contaminants."

Joel Feigenbaum, an environmental activist who fought for a comprehensive cleanup of a military range on Cape Cod, has said the EPA needs to do its own monitoring rather than relying on Navy tests in order determine the true need for cleanup.

But in his Cape Cod battle, Feigenbaum had the support of the state government, not to mention the star power of the Kennedy political dynasty and other members of Congress in pressuring the EPA to order a full cleanup.

The EPA, it must be remembered, responds to the same boss as the Navy, and getting it to take a tougher hand with the Navy requires public pressure. That's especially so in Puerto Rico, which as a commonwealth has limited representation in Congress, which would ultimately have to pay for a Vieques cleanup.

That's why it's a shame that the public comment period on preliminary Navy cleanup plans passed by nearly unnoticed here -- it was a perfect opportunity to present such public pressure.

But the cleanup issue has yet to galvanize the support that the drive to stop military maneuvers was able to muster. There are no demonstrations. No rallying cries uniting political parties and civic groups. Just a few lone voices screaming that the important battle over Vieques is in a paper trail stretching back decades.

At the press conference in which she declared "victory" on the Vieques issue, the governor said she would soon appoint a transition committee to oversee the process of the Navy's expected exit from Vieques.

But she better jump-start those plans, according to environmentalists following the Navy-EPA paper trail, who suspect that the Navy is not just leaving Vieques, but running out of there as fast as possible.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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