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The Navy Should Ship Out

June 11, 1999

Just off the east coast of Puerto Rico lies the little island of Vieques, home to a small town of 9,000 United States citizens. That would be unremarkable were the island not also the home of a huge base where the US Navy conducts live-fire exercises.

In no other location does live bombing take place so close to a significant civilian population. It doesn't take much to see the potential for disaster, and the Puerto Rican government has for years tried to get the Navy to move the exercises elsewhere.

San Juan's campaign got a new push in April, when a Marine jet accidentally bombed a civilian guard post, killing a guard and wounding four others. It was just the latest in a litany of injuries to Vieques residents and created a public furor in Puerto Rico.

Recently, the Navy admitted that another Marine jet mistakenly fired shells with radioactive depleted uranium at Vieques in early March. Use of such shells on the island is illegal.

None of the 50 states would tolerate a bombing range so close to a town.

A state's congressional delegation would make sure any such operation got shut down. But Puerto Rico isn't a state; its governor and nonvoting delegate to the House must rely on persuasion instead.

We're persuaded. It's time for the Navy to phase out the live-fire exercises or move them to a safer location.

And it's also time for Congress to set up a neutral process by which Puerto Ricans can decide whether they're ready for statehood, with the advantages - and responsibilities - that entails.

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