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Rosselló Calls On U.S. Navy To Leave Bombing Range

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 Vieques island.

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 environment.

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 by August.

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.

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