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New York Daily News

Time To Target Vieques For Superfund Cleanup


July 15, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

FINALLY, THERE seems to be some concrete hope that the Navy will fulfill its commitment to the people of Vieques and clean up the environmental mess that it left behind after 60 years of using the island for target practice.

It is the least Washington can do for the long-suffering Viequenses.

After years of protests, the Navy finally pulled out of Vieques on May 1, 2003, but a lot of problems built up over six decades.

Peace and fairness for the almost 10,000 U.S. citizens who live on the 55-square-mile island cannot be accomplished just by not bombing it into oblivion any more.

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

"There hasn't been any cleaning," Guadalupe said recently from the committee's office in Vieques.

Which is unconscionable. After all, Vieques has the highest cancer mortality rate among Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities. Clearly, this is directly linked to the fact that the Navy left behind an unfortunate legacy of poisonous chemicals, toxic waste, illness, poverty and God knows how much unexploded ammunition sprinkled on the island's beautiful beaches. Obviously a lot needs to be done.

In May, a group of concerned Vieques residents visited several members of Congress in Washington to ask for their support to have their island decontaminated.

One of the people they spoke to was House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who three days ago faxed a letter to the federal Office of Management and Budget - signed by her and 14 other Democratic members of Congress. In the letter, they asked that the former training sites of Vieques be included in the Superfund list of environmental cleanup locations without further delay.

'We expect a positive response soon," said Federico de Jess, a press officer at Pelosi's office. "[Puerto Rico] Gov. Sila Caldern met with the EPA people in June of last year, and the agency made a positive recommendation. Yet 13 months have gone by, and no action has been taken."

The Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner in Washington, Anbal Acevedo-Vil, signed the letter, as did New York Reps. Jos Serrano, Nydia Velzquez, Charles Rangel, Joseph Crowley and Elliot Engel.

The Superfund program was established by Congress in 1980 to locate, investigate and clean up the worst-contaminated sites nationwide. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administers the program in cooperation with individual states.

A statement issued Pelosi's office called on the administration to expedite the inclusion of Vieques in the Superfund list "for the desperately needed and longoverdue decontamination."

"While we are pleased that the Navy ended their bombing exercises last year," the letter said, "until the necessary cleanup takes place, the risks for health and human safety remain."

Erik Lausten, legislative director for the resident commissioner's office in Washington, also is optimistic.

"We are hopeful that there will be a positive response soon," he said.

So are the people of Vieques. Their future depends on it.

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