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Environmental Cleanup A Necessity…Military Must Learn From PastPuerto Rico Should Try To Deal Now With A Possible Base Closing

Environmental Cleanup A Must As Military Leaves Vieques, Naval Base


January 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Morning Call. All rights reserved.

The Navy has long prized and praised the 21-mile-long island of Vieques , Puerto Rico , as the only East Coast site where battle groups can engage in joint training exercises with amphibious landings of Marines, shelling from ships and aerial bombardment from fighter jets. The United States had purchased two-thirds of the island on the eve of World War II, a move accepted by Puerto Ricans then as a war-related emergency. But on Monday, when Navy Secretary Gordon R. England signed the anticipated letter of certification to Congress, confirming that the Navy and Marine Corps will cease training May 1 on Vieques , he also identified specific training alternatives in the United States.

Protests of U.S. military operations on Vieques were sparked in 1999 when two Navy jets on a practice bombing run accidentally killed a civilian Puerto Rican security guard when they dropped two 500-pound bombs on a military observation tower. Considering the intensity of the subsequent protests by Puerto Ricans , joined by U.S. activists, an assumption could be made that Puerto Ricans would simply celebrate the latest news. But the end of Vieques operations could result in the closing of the nearby Roosevelt Roads naval station, a major employer in Puerto Rico . The Atlantic Fleet's commander, Robert Natter, told The Associated Press last week that after Vieques , Roosevelt Roads would be "a drain on Defense Department and taxpayer dollars."

In reality, the closing of Roosevelt Roads is far from being a fact, despite the commander's realistic assessment. It would require approval of an independent base closure committee and Congress, which isn't scheduled to rule until 2005. This gives Puerto Ricans a head start in figuring out how to replace some of the economic impact of Roosevelt Roads, estimated at $250 million a year, including military and civilian salaries. The base includes about 8,000 acres of waterfront property -- a development opportunity that stirs the imagination.

After May 1, when the military's portion of Vieques is to be turned over to the Department of the Interior, the Navy and Interior departments will assess the inevitable environmental contamination and how to remove it. Puerto Ricans have pushed for a thorough cleanup of Vieques , and that should happen. The same could be said for the closing of Roosevelt Roads, just as environmental cleanups have followed military base closures in the mainland states. An environmental cleanup would give Puerto Rico a shot at transforming Vieques and Roosevelt Roads into new commercial ventures or even more tourism. That, in turn, would help Puerto Rico 's struggling economy.

Military Must Learn From Past

January 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003 South Florida Sun-Sentinel Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

As promised, the U.S. military will cease using bombing ranges on Puerto Rico's Vieques Island in May. But the decision does not exactly close the books on the hot-button issue. And it raises significant public policy questions for Florida, which is chock-full of potential sites to replace the Vieques ranges.

The pledge to stop using bombing ranges for target practice was offered three years ago by the Clinton administration in response to Puerto Rican protests that gained momentum after an errant bomb accidentally killed a security guard. The protests had been simmering for decades, however, amid concern over environmental damage to the island and other issues.

Now that the Navy is leaving Vieques, some of these issues must still be resolved.

After the Navy sets sail on May 1, the land will be turned over to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Interior officials are to work with the Navy to assess the environmental damage and to develop strategies for dealing with whatever contamination exists.

The Defense Department must also decide what it will do with the Roosevelt Roads base in Puerto Rico. The Navy said that disbanding the Vieques target ranges makes Roosevelt Roads obsolete. If that were the case, the loss of the base would eliminate an estimated $250 million-a-year infusion into the local economy.

Officials in Puerto Rico say they will fight attempts to close the rest of the base. Adm. Robert Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, which has used the base for training purposes since World War II, said keeping it open is unnecessary and will drain Defense Department resources.

Regardless of what is decided, the decision to abandon the Vieques target range has significant implications for Florida. The Navy plans to replace its Vieques ranges by developing alternative sites. Five of the seven options are in the Sunshine State, including at-sea sites off Key West and the Avon Park Air Force ranges in south-central Florida.

The demands of the military in a time of war have to be given serious consideration.

This is no time for knee-jerk "not in my backyard" whining. However, state officials and Florida's congressional representatives must work with the Pentagon to make sure the use of locations for target practice minimizes the impact to both people and the environment.

The military needs support from Floridians. But the military must also make sure it does not repeat the mistakes that led to its retreat from Vieques.

Time To Plan: Puerto Rico Should Try To Deal Now With A Possible Base Closing


January 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

Our position: Puerto Rico should try to deal now with a possible base closing.

Puerto Rican officials have vowed to fight any move to close the huge Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on the island. But they also need to be actively planning for the future if they lose.

The call Friday from the commander of the U.S. Navy's Atlantic Fleet to close the facility should not have come as a surprise. Since 1999, when an international protest movement led by Puerto Ricans at home and abroad began demanding the end of bombing runs on the nearby island of Vieques, some military officials have warned there would be no point in keeping Roosevelt Roads open without the exercises.

Navy Secretary Gordon R. England made the end of bombing on Vieques inevitable last week when he told President George W. Bush that there are comparable or better alternatives elsewhere for air-sea-land training. Congress sensibly required that certification before the Navy could follow through with an agreement to end bombing on Vieques by this May.

The naval commander who called for closing Roosevelt Roads, Adm. Robert Natter, will not come close to having the last word on the matter. An independent base-closure commission must first recommend the move and Congress must then approve it. And that commission is not scheduled to meet again until 2005.

Still, Mr. Natter insists that keeping Roosevelt Roads open without using Vieques for bombing is a waste of money for the Defense Department and U.S. taxpayers. If he is right, it makes sense for the commission to recommend shuttering the facility and for Congress to go along.

Puerto Rican officials insist that the station remains important, particularly after Sept. 11. They'll have plenty of time to make their case before the commission makes any recommendations.

But with so much advance warning, Puerto Rican officials have no excuse for getting caught off-guard if their effort fails. They need to consider other uses for the facility, which currently employs 3,850 civilians and pumps $250 million a year into the struggling Puerto Rican economy.

There would be plenty to work with at the station. It has miles of beaches, an 11,000-foot runway, nine piers, a water-treatment plant and four sewage-treatment plants. Some economists think the property could be more valuable to Puerto Rico as a regional tourist hub.

The federal government could cushion any blow to Puerto Rico's economy from closing Roosevelt Roads and speed up its redevelopment by eventually signing the property over to the island rather than retaining federal control.

The time for Puerto Rican leaders to explore such arrangements is now, not later.

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