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EPA May Target Puerto Rican Islands For Toxic Waste Cleanup

By Marty Coyne, Greenwire senior reporter

August 16, 2004
Copyright © 2004 E&E Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.

The U.S. EPA has proposed adding parts of the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra to the nation's list of Superfund sites. Both islands are contaminated with bomb casings, munitions and other weapons-related pollutants associated with U.S. Navy training activities.

Known collectively as the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Area, the island ranges include land and water polluted by more than 100 years of military use. The Navy used the eastern part of Vieques for bombing and live fire exercises from the 1940s until 2003, when it vacated the island amid opposition from residents of Puerto Rico. The military used Culebra as a bombing range and for other military exercises beginning in 1902.

Contaminants that have fouled Vieques and Culebra include PCBs, depleted uranium, TNT, perchlorate, lithium, mercury, lead, copper, magnesium and pesticides. The Navy also tested napalm bombs on Vieques in 1993 and accidentally dropped bombs laced with uranium on the island in 1999.

The Defense Department revealed in 2002 that its Cold War-era program included a test of chemical and germ warfare on Vieques in 1969. As part of the testing program, the federal government exposed civilians to "simulants," which authorities said they believed to be harmless but later proved to be dangerous. In Vieques, the military sprayed a Marine unit and the USS Fort Snelling with trioctyl phosphate, a nontoxic substitute for the much more sinister VX, a nerve agent. While the substance has caused cancer in some animals, scientists have not been able to link it to any long-term effects in humans.

Both the Pentagon and environmentalists who have been critical of Navy management of the islands praised the EPA proposal to add the sites to the Superfund national priorities list.

"The Navy supports the NPL listing as it provides a consistent regulatory framework for all parties to continue the cleanup of the former Navy property on Vieques," said Navy spokesman John Peters. Officials at the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for managing the Culebra cleanup, did not return calls seeking comment.

Aimee Houghton, the associate director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, said EPA's involvement in Vieques and Culebra will lend consistency to the multiyear cleanup process.

EPA has been investigating contamination at Vieques under a Resources Conservation and Recovery Act order, and results from that work will be incorporated into Superfund assessments of the site. The RCRA probe has focused on 12 areas around the former bombing range at Vieques and has identified more than three dozen additional areas of concern.

Environmentalists have long maintained that the Navy's aerial bombing practices endangered marine life and air quality. Studies by Puerto Rican researchers found high levels of heavy metals in crabs, plants and human hair. The Navy disputed the findings.

U.S. officials decided in May 2003 to close the 8,600-acre Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station base near Vieques after local protests halted operations at the bombing range. Roosevelt Road is not included in the EPA proposal, and the Navy plans to sell that land -- which includes wetlands inhabited by several endangered species -- once it cleans up contaminated soil and groundwater.

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