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New York Daily News

Cleanup Time on Vieques


April 18, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Tomorrow, April 19, will mark five years since David Sanes Rodrguez was killed on Vieques. And during that time, much has changed on that little Puerto Rican island.

Sanes Rodrguez, a 33-year-old civilian security guard, was accidentally killed in 1999 by a U.S. Navy pilot who dropped two 500- pound bombs on the island - but missed his intended target.

However, the young man's death was not in vain: It ignited a firestorm of protest that culminated with the May 1, 2003, Navy pullout from Vieques, which it had mercilessly used for target practice for more than 60 years.

Yet, after six decades of problems, peace and fairness for the almost 10,000 U.S. citizens who inhabit the 55-square-mile island mean much more than just an end to the bombing.

"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," said Ismael Guadalupe, spokesman for the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, one of the main groups that opposed the Navy's presence.

And two years after the Navy stopped military exercises, Guadalupe's words ring as true as when he uttered them.

"There hasn't been any cleaning," Guadalupe said Friday from the committee's office in Vieques. "The Puerto Rican government is asleep at the wheel. The Department of Justice has no interest in cleaning the island."

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.

Among Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities, Vieques has the highest cancer mortality rate.

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

"These poisonous remnants remain," said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D- Queens). "And they need to be cleaned up before one can honestly say the Navy has fully vacated the island of Vieques."

Actually, in May of 1999, one month after the death of Sanes Rodrguez and the start of the civil disobedience campaign in the bombing zone, the Navy admitted it had fired depleted uranium projectiles during maneuvers in February of that year.

Yet the people of Vieques have never been tested for uranium contamination.

"The Puerto Rican Health Department has been totally negligent for not examining our people," declared committee member Nilda Medina. "We have no doubt that the very high cancer incidence among our population is related to depleted uranium and other military toxics."

Summing up the current situation in Vieques, Guadalupe sounded proud, frustrated and militant - all at the same time.

"Make no mistake the withdrawal of the Navy was a great triumph of the people," he said. "But the cleaning of the island has not happened. We are still getting sick and dying in our own homes. We have won a battle but not the war."

After 60 years of bombing the island, the Navy should not wait any longer to clean the environmental mess it left behind. Protecting their health is the least Washington should do for the long-suffering people of Vieques.

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