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Did The U.S. Navy Pollute Paradise?

BY Shane DuBow

January 1, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Gale Group Inc. All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2004 Smithsonian Institution All rights reserved.

ISSN: 0037-7333; Volume 34; Issue 10

Did the U.S. Navy pollute paradise?

Several recent studies have reported high levels of toxins in the Vieques environment and health problems among the local population. Epidemiologist Carmen Ortiz-Roque at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Puerto Rico examined hair samples from 203 Vieques residents to determine whether they had been exposed to mercury, aluminum, cadmium, lead and arsenic--all ingredients in high explosives. All of the chemicals except arsenic were found to be elevated in a significant number of the men, women and children tested. Ortiz-Roque discovered, for example, that levels of mercury (known to cause birth defects and nerve damage) were higher than is considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) among 33 percent of those tested and that aluminum (a carcinogen) exceeded safe levels in 56 percent. Ortiz-Roque also reported Vieques' cancer mortality rate to be 30 percent higher than in the rest of Puerto Rico; factors such as lack of medical care may account in part for the higher rate. (In a survey comparing the health of Viequenses and other Puerto Ricans, researchers at the University of Puerto Rico ruled out alcohol and tobacco as reasons for the increase.)

Research by the Navy's Explosives Chemistry Branch detailed the presence--though at low levels--of an explosives residue called RDX, a known carcinogen, in water and soil samples taken from both inside and outside the bombing range. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) found cadmium and lead levels considered dangerous to crustaceans and their predators in crabs captured near Navy solid waste disposal sites on the island's west end. Biologist Arturo Massol-Deya of the University of Puerto Rico recorded levels of lead in the island's pasture grass, used for grazing cattle, that exceeded safety guidelines set by the Food and Drug Administration. Over the years, the EPA has cited the Navy for 102 violations of water quality standards on Vieques, identifying excessive concentrations of such chemicals as cyanide and cadmium in the coastal waters near the bombing range.

The Navy disputes any link between its presence and health problems on the island: "... no study advances evidence that Navy activities pose a risk to human health on Vieques," said then Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig in an October 1999 statement. A summary of the Navy's environmental and economic efforts on the island, which was issued at the same time, reported that explosives-related pollutants cannot make their way to civilian areas eight miles west of the bombing range; that the toxins found on the island were naturally occurring; and that there is no cause and effect between the island's high rate of cancer deaths and the Navy's activities.

It will no doubt take years and many experts to tease out all the facts. But a 1999 Defense Department report cited the Navy's "insensitivity," along with its "less than satisfactory" performance in "environmental and health domains" on Vieques. And although the Navy turned 15,500 acres of bombing range lands over to the USFWS as a wildlife refuge on May 1, 2003, many areas will be closed to the public until unexploded ordnance and other waste can be cleaned up. The 900-acre Live Impact Area at the island's eastern tip (in which clean up has yet to begin) has been designated a wilderness area and is closed to the public.

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