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Associated Press Newswires

U.S. Interior Secretary Says Planning Underway For Transfer Of Navy Lands On Vieques


April 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

CRUZ BAY, U.S. Virgin Islands (AP) - The U.S. Department of the Interior is making preparations to accept Navy lands on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as the military withdraws, the agency's chief said Friday.

The Navy, which has faced protests over bombing exercises on Vieques, plans to withdraw by May 1, turning over the island's eastern third to the Department of the Interior and moving training to spots in Florida and elsewhere in the U.S. mainland.

Speaking Friday during a visit to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Interior Secretary Gail Norton said the 15,500 acres (6,200 hectares) on Vieques is to be turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to become part of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge.

"We have to go through a process of planning to get the refuge staffed," Norton said.

The Navy says it will clean up the lands and has already demolished barracks and some wooden observation towers.

Norton said her agency is discussing the removal of unexploded ammunition with the military and is also working to make sure people are kept away from areas where hazards may remain.

"We want to stress our commitment to ensure the safety of everyone who visits the refuge," manager Oscar Diaz Marrero said in a statement Wednesday. "Right now, only two beaches have been screened for unexploded ordnance and determined to be safe... They will be open to the public."

Once the Navy hands over the lands, the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to evaluate which activities - such as hiking, bicycling, fishing - should be allowed.

The addition of the Navy property will increase the National Wildlife Refuge on Vieques to more than 18,000 acres (7,200 hectares), making it the largest U.S. refuge in the Caribbean.

Activists in the U.S. territory say the bombing exercises, which began in 1947, have harmed the environment and the health of Vieques' 9,100 residents. The Navy denies the claims.

The training has faced stiff criticism in Puerto Rico since off-target bombs killed a civilian guard on the firing range in 1999.

Since then, the Navy has turned to inert ammunition, while more than 1,000 people have been arrested for breaking onto Navy lands in protest. The last round of exercises, which took on an important role as troops prepared for the Iraq war, concluded on Feb. 8.

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