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ASSOCIATED PRESS NEWSWIRES
Rosselló Calls On U.S. Navy To Leave Bombing
by Chris Hawley
July 1, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Citing a history of stray bombs
and environmental damage, Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello says
he'll try to expel the U.S. Navy from an outlying island.
"It's going to be a fight - we're all agreed on that,
but we are committed," Rossello said Wednesday in adopting
a government commission's report calling for the Navy to leave
Rossello - who supports statehood for this U.S. commonwealth
- joined local politicians of all stripes in endorsing the report
. He created the commission after an April bombing accident killed
a civilian guard at the range.
Rossello said he considered a 1983 agreement between the Navy
and the Puerto Rican government void because the Navy had not
lived up to its promises to protect the environment and the safety
of the island's 9,300 residents.
Navy officials insist that Vieques, the service's only live-fire
range in the Atlantic, is vital to national security. The Navy
occupied two-thirds [of the]18-mile-by-4-mile island, just off
eastern Puerto Rico in the 1940's.
Capt. James Stark Jr., commander of the Roosevelt Roads Naval
Station that oversees the training ground, declined comment on
the report but said the military is "seeking solutions that
will benefit the people of Vieques while maintaining our obligation
to train military forces to defend our nation."
Opposition to the Navy presence has flared since a civilian
security guard was killed April 19 when two 500-pound bombs were
dropped off-target. The Navy's admission last month that it had
mistakenly fired radioactive uranium-tipped shells at the island
in February - in violation of local and federal law - fueled concerns
that the Navy may have covered up similar accidents.
The commission's 300-page report details the dropping of five
bombs within one mile of homes in 1993 and the shooting of a government
vehicle by stray machine-gun bullets in 1997.
The panel claims the frequent bombings scare away tourists
and developers, resulting in an average income 30 percent lower
than the main island. Vieques' cancer rate is estimated to be
at least 40 percent higher than the rest of Puerto Rico, according
to researchers at the University of Puerto Rico. Residents blame
their poor health on toxic residue from explosives.
"The damage is real," said commission member Mario
Gaztambide. "This is not a question of Puerto Rico against
the United States ... this is simply a matter of justice for Vieques
Commission members claim the exercises jeopardize the breeding
grounds of endangered manatees and sea turtles, coral reefs, pelicans
and bays full of luminescent plankton. But environmental impact
statements filed by the Navy say they have little effect on the
Vieques residents, "like all other citizens, have the
inalienable right to enjoy life, liberty, property and the pursuit
of happiness," Rossello said. "The activities of the
Navy of the United States of America on the island of Vieques
constitute a violation of those fundamental rights guaranteed
by the constitution."
At Rossello's urging, President Clinton ordered the Department
of Defense to appoint a panel to study the Vieques issue.
Acting on Clinton's orders, the U.S. Defense Department appointed
a four-man panel to recommend whether the military should continue
live-fire exercises on Vieques. The panel's work should be concluded
Puerto Ricans criticized that panel because it has only one civilian
member. The Puerto Rican panel included members of the island's
pro- statehood, pro-commonwealth and independence parties, but
no military representatives.
As the political action and public pressure continue, Rossello
said he will keep handy drafts of an injunction to stop the bombing
and a class-action lawsuit to force a $2 billion cleanup.
"If we don't get the answers we want, we can always take
other action," he said.