Esta página no está disponible en español.

Allentown Morning Call (Pa.)

After Bombing Stops, Vieques Faces Cleanup

By Matthew Hay Brown

January 18, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Allentown Morning Call (Pa.). All rights reserved. 

U.S. military in Vieques (ORLANDO SENTINEL)

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- Carmen Valencia points to each marker, reads the name, tells a story.

Manolin Portella owned the little market in town. Varo Comas moved back after retiring on the mainland. Minerva Bermúdez, just married, was raising two small children.

All are dead now, felled by the cancer that stalks residents of this island at a higher rate than in the rest of Puerto Rico. Each is remembered here with a simple white cross outside the chain-link fence that surrounds the Navy firing range at Camp Garcia.

More than 50 such markers rise from the tall grass along Highway 997. For the deaths, many blame the heavy metals, solvents, chemicals and other potentially harmful materials introduced during more than five decades of military exercises on this otherwise quiet Caribbean island.

The Navy last week confirmed the end of training on Vieques by May 1, but plans for the land remain far from resolved. While the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Battle Group conducts what officials say will be the last round of exercises on Vieques, the Navy and the activists who campaigned against the practice bombing are bracing for the next phase of the dispute: the cleanup.

Under current legislation, the Navy is to turn the land over to the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the agencies are to work together to address environmental contamination. Gov. Sila M. Calderón has appointed a commission to represent Puerto Rico. Activists are demanding a role in the discussions.

"There is a plethora of deadly military toxins here," said Roberto Rabin, a leader of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques. "If there's no decontamination, even if the Navy didn't drop another bomb, they would go on killing us for decades."

The Navy said periodic exercises at Camp Garcia have not endangered public health on this island of 9,100 mostly poor inhabitants. Studies have indicated elevated levels of several contaminants in the water, food chain and population and higher-than-normal rates of cancer, but direct links are difficult to prove.

Nonetheless, many on the island are convinced.

"We are sure these illnesses are the result of the bombs," said the 58-year-old Valencia, a retired schoolteacher who said she had her uterus removed two years ago after doctors diagnosed the beginnings of cancer.

"There's no factories here, no industrial development, nothing else that would contaminate us like that. What else could it be?"

Locals know this 20-mile-long sliver of land as la Isla Nena, the "baby island" of lush green mountains and white sand beaches rising from the turquoise waters off the eastern tip of Puerto Rico. Families fish, raise cattle or cater to tourists. More than a quarter of the work force is unemployed.

The Navy has been on the island since World War II, using the eastern end of the island for periodic bombing practice.

Since exercises began in 1947, sailors and Marines have introduced napalm, depleted uranium and a possibly carcinogenic chemical intended to simulate the nerve agent VX into the environment. The USS Killen, a destroyer used as a target ship during nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, lies sunk 150 yards from shore.

During the 1990s, the Navy reported levels of the heavy metals arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese and mercury, sometimes hundreds of times above permit limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, in the waters around the island.

Heavy metals -- often found in military munitions -- can remain in human tissue for years. Some may be associated with asthma and illnesses of the central nervous system, kidneys, lungs, heart and brain. Prolonged exposure to abnormal levels of arsenic, cadmium and chromium has been linked to cancer.

University of Puerto Rico biologist Arturo Massol Deya has found levels of cadmium considered toxic for human consumption in land crabs on the firing range. The crabs are not eaten on Vieques. Massol also has found toxic levels of cobalt, lead, manganese and nickel in edible plants such as chili pepper, mango, pumpkin, pineapple and banana.

Epidemiologist Carmen Ortiz Roque found toxic levels of lead or mercury in 44 percent of the 49 subjects who volunteered for testing in 2000. Some also had toxic levels of cadmium.

Studies by the commonwealth government have indicated a higher-than-normal rate of cancer on Vieques. Islanders say they also suffer abnormally from asthma, skin conditions, neonatal mortality and birth defects. The government is planning more studies.

The Navy did not respond to several requests this week to address environmental contamination or health problems on Vieques for this report. Navy officials have said in the past that military activities on Vieques have not harmed the environment or the population.

Dr. Rafael Rivera Castaño, a retired professor of epidemiology at the University of Puerto Rico, disagrees.

"I have no doubt at all that the Navy contamination is the cause of the high rate of cancers," said Rivera, who lives on Vieques and has advised activists.

"We have studies that link cancer with environmental contamination," he said. "The only way we have environmental contamination is the Navy. We should have studies to corroborate this, but I think we have enough evidence to clean the area."

After training ends, the 15,587 acres on the eastern end of the island used by the Navy will be turned over to the Department of the Interior. A 900-acre section where live bombs have been dropped will remain off-limits to humans indefinitely. The nearly 10,000 acres of Navy land on the western end became a nature reserve in 2001.

Details of the planned environmental study, cleanup, schedule and costs have yet to be determined. Navy spokesman Ensign David Luckett said the process would follow established procedures. He said cleanup would include a surface clearance based on a visual inspection of the land and a review of training records, performed to standards established by law.

A surface clearance could leave underground materials undisturbed. Activists are calling for a complete assessment and cleanup -- and a full role in the process.

"We are demanding community participation that goes beyond public hearings, that goes beyond quarterly meetings with the Navy that they control," Rabin said. "We are demanding a real participation by people in the community, including our own technical advisers -- people we can trust."

The director of the Military Toxics Project, an independent group that campaigns to reduce and remove pollution from military activities, said results in Vieques would relate directly to the level of local participation.

"Citizens there absolutely need to be involved," Tara Thornton said. "The more involved, the better the cleanup is going to be."

Activists in Vieques have sought guidance from activists working to decontaminate ranges on Kahoolawe in Hawaii and the Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod. Both have proved lengthy, expensive and contentious projects.

The Navy said a decade ago that it would clear the entire surface of Kahoolawe, Hawaii's eighth-largest island, and 30 percent of the subsurface. But when the $400 million project ends in November, only about two thirds of the surface and less than 10 percent of the subsurface are expected to have been cleared.

The Massachusetts Military Reservation, which has been used by the Army, Air Force and National Guard, sits atop the sole source of drinking water on Cape Cod. After pollutants were found in nearby ground wells, the EPA ordered a cleanup. Two years into the $350 million project, more contamination has been found, leading the military to provide an alternate drinking-water supply to area residents.

During a visit to Puerto Rico in December, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said the agency would oversee a thorough cleanup of the range at Vieques.

"We are going to make sure that it is safe," she said. "We're going to do it right, and we're going to do it as fast as we can."

Calderón declined this week to detail her expectations, saying her focus now is on improving relations between Puerto Rico and the United States after the campaign to end training.

"When will it be done, how much will it cost, how will we do it, that's something that has to be discussed within the context of two partners collaborating," Calderón said. "The most important thing that I want this process to do is to heal the notion that this was an anti-American or anti-U.S.A. or anti-Navy effort."

Radamés Tirado, a former mayor of Vieques who now represents the commonwealth government on Vieques as sub-commissioner, said the community would demand a thorough cleaning.

"We are going to fight to get the whole land of Vieques to be cleaned in the proper way for us to live here," he said. "We have suffered for 60 years the presence of the Navy. We are going to bring all the pressure we can."

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback