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New York Daily News

Navy Must Clean Up Its Vieques Mess


November 23, 2003
Copyright ©2003
Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Queens Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley was appalled when he traveled to the Puerto Rican island of Vieques this month to assess the situation there six months after the U.S. Navy's departure.

"The Navy has the moral responsibility to clean Vieques up," he said. "And I'll do everything I can to help make sure the U.S. government fulfills that duty."

Crowley, who traveled with Assemblyman Jos Rivera (D-Bronx) and other New York politicians, was briefed during the visit by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has managed some 15,000 acres on the island since the Navy stopped using it for military exercises on April 30. Agency officials told him they were preparing a cleanup plan.

But an obviously frustrated Crowley said: "There is no real coordination between the agencies in charge of cleaning up Vieques."

After visiting some of the beaches that were off-limits before the Navy pullout, the congressman proclaimed: "The Fish and Wildlife Service, the Navy and the EPA, which is in charge of cleaning the waters around the island, need to do much more to work together."

Clearly a lot needs to be done. After all, what the Navy left behind was an unfortunate legacy of poisonous chemicals, toxic waste, illness, poverty and God knows how much unexploded ammunition sprinkled on the island's beautiful beaches.

"If they do not eliminate the military toxins accumulated over six decades of bombing, the Navy will continue to kill our people for a long time to come," Vieques activist Ismael Guadeloupe said at the beginning of this year.

Which, as Crowley saw with his own eyes, is exactly what is happening.

"The number of cases of people with cancer in Vieques continues to rise," Crowley wrote in a letter to a group of Viequenses last month. "And Vieques is the municipality with the highest cancer mortality rate among Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities."

There is no mystery to this health crisis, the congressman added. In addition to leaving behind unexploded bombs, the Navy, by its own admission, dropped napalm on Vieques and fired uranium-tipped shells that were never recovered.

"These poisonous remnants remain," Crowley's letter said. "And they need to be cleaned up before one can honestly say the Navy has fully vacated the island of Vieques."

After 62 years of U.S. Navy presence, the 9,300 people of Vieques - U.S. citizens by birth - have nothing to show for it. In fact, 72% live below poverty level, and 50% are unemployed.

This should not be surprising, given that in the last 15 years alone more than 1,300 warships and 4,200 aircraft used the island for target practice.

Which is why a concerned Crowley penned another letter - this one dated Nov. 6 - to Secretary of the Navy Gordon England. It read, in part: ". . . it is my sincere hope that you will . . . ask for the immediate cleanup and subsequent followup testing of Vieques by an independent body as well as award just compensation to the people of Vieques for their many years of suffering - suffering that will continue long after the physical presence of the Navy has left the island."

It's the least that Washington should do for the long-suffering people of Vieques. And certainly it would be far less expensive than the $20 billion President Bush is eager to spend rebuilding Iraq.

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