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U.S. Military Begins Shutdown Of Vieques Bomb Range
By FRANK GRIFFITHS
April 2, 2003
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - The U.S. military has started tearing down wooden structures at its bombing range in Vieques as the Navy's scheduled departure by May approaches, officials said Wednesday.
Among the temporary buildings demolished were barracks and observation posts set up to monitor activists trying to break onto the range to halt the training exercises, Navy spokesman Oscar Seara said.
The Navy does not plan to tear down permanent concrete buildings, he said.
For decades, the U.S. Navy has conducted training on the outlying island off Puerto Rico's east coast with live-fire and inert ordinance in preparation for international conflicts from Korea to Afghanistan.
The last training, from Jan. 13 to Feb. 8, assumed particular importance while the U.S. military prepared for war against Iraq.
It was not immediately clear how much the clean up would cost or if officials have started cleaning up any unexploded ordinance that may remain.
The Navy says it will withdraw from Vieques by May 1, turning over the island's eastern third to the U.S. Department of the Interior and moving training to spots in Florida and elsewhere in the U.S. mainland.
However, opponents have remained skeptical about the planned exit, saying the war in Iraq may be used as an excuse to stay, which the Navy denies.
"We have received no directive to renege on our agreement," Seara said. "We are going to fulfill our agreement."
On March 20, Acting Navy Secretary Hansford T. Johnson told a session of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee that the Navy is required to clean up Vieques including removing munitions.
About $2 million in funds has been set aside for the cleanup, Johnson said.
Municipal workers in Vieques have been helping the Navy demolish the temporary buildings and the materials are being donated to the local government, Seara said. "It's a win-win situation."
Activists say the bombing exercises, which began in 1947, have harmed the environment and the health of the island's 9,100 residents. The Navy denies the claims.
The training has been criticized by the U.S. territory's leaders since off-target bombs killed a civilian guard on the firing range in 1999. After the incident, the Navy turned to inert ammunition, while more than 1,000 protesters were arrested for trespassing on Navy lands.