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Norfolk, VA

Navy Fighting To Keep Island Target Range

Rossello Wants Military To Go

by Jack Dorsey

July 3, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT AND THE LEDGER-STAR. All Rights Reserved.

Eight miles southeast of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on Puerto Rico lies a rolling, barren Caribbean island measuring roughly 2 1/2 by 20 miles that has become the Navy's biggest headache of the year.

About the size of Norfolk, Vieques Island is perhaps the most valuable chunk of real estate the Navy owns in the Western Hemisphere.

It is the only place in the Atlantic Fleet's area of operation where the military can simultaneously drop live ordnance from aircraft, strike land targets with ship gunfire and storm beaches with Marines using their ground weapons fire while plowing through the surf in their amphibious craft.

In 1942, the Navy purchased 33,000 of the island's 50,000 acres and has used it as a bombing range ever since.

On Wednesday, Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello told the Navy he wants them out.

Rossello has asked President Clinton to close the bombing range and allow the estimated 9,300 residents, who reside on one-third of the island, to "live in peace."

Although the Navy has been threatened before with being removed from the island - following protests in 1969 and again in 1979 - this threat is being taken seriously, Navy officials said.

"We are in a big-time bind down there," said a Navy official who asked not to be identified. "If we lose Vieques, there isn't anyplace else to go."

The Navy has looked from Newfoundland to South America for a comparable, all-weather bombing range with deep-water access and no inhabitants.

"There really isn't an alternative," he said.

The White House already has appointed a four-member panel to study the issue and report back in late August.

A military study is being headed by Vice Adm. William J. Fallon, 2nd Fleet commander, and Lt. Gen. Peter Pace, commander Marine Forces Atlantic. Their report is expected soon.

Capitol Hill hearings on the issue are expected late this summer.

Political pundits point out that, with an election year coming up and the growing importance of the Latino vote, the decision on the Hill could easily influence the issue's outcome.

"That's why both George W. Bush and Al Gore gave major parts of their candidacy speeches in both English and Spanish," said one naval officer.

The officer noted that more than 2 million Latinos, many of whom are voters, live in New York state.

The Navy clearly faces an uphill battle in trying to hold on to its Vieques range, officials said.

Its latest troubles began April 19 when a pair of Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornets dropped two 500-pound bombs near an observation tower on Vieques, killing a civilian security guard and injuring four other men.

The accident has received so much local publicity that "the average person in Puerto Rico believes the guy who was killed was walking down the street," said one official.

The men were in the observation tower reporting back to the aircraft coordinators while overlooking a 10-mile-wide buffer zone between the range and the civilian-owned end of the island, the Navy said.

Regardless, the accident rekindled a debate that has lasted for decades on Vieques. Fishermen and farmers who occupy one corner of the island have opposed the use of live ordnance there for years, claiming the explosions disrupt fishing grounds and hurt the island's efforts to attract tourists.

This time, Navy officials are particularly worried because the factions that have divided Puerto Rico over nearly every other issue seem united in getting the Navy off the island.

Rossello - who supports statehood for the U.S. commonwealth - joined local politicians in endorsing a committee report calling for the Navy to leave Vieques.

While statehood has been advocated by the more recent administrations in Puerto Rico, there has been support among a second faction for continuation of commonwealth status.

A third group, the small Partido Independentista Puertorriqueno, argues for independence.

Puerto Ricans have been further outraged since the Navy admitted last month that it mistakenly fired hundreds of uranium-tipped shells on Vieques in February, in violation of local and federal law. The Navy contends the munitions are not harmful.

"It's `depleted' uranium, meaning it doesn't contain any," said an official.

They are used in war time because of their mass. Such bullets explode upon impact into shards, causing increased damage.

"They don't do anything unless they hit you, or you're sucking on them like a lollipop," said an official.

The Navy operates the bombing range under a memorandum of understanding with Puerto Rico that was adopted in 1983. The memo addresses safety, noise, historical preservation, sea turtle and mammal management, land use and community assistance issues.

Rossello has said that the Navy has not adhered to the pact.

"There are places we could have done better, but we have done a phenomenal job in terms of health and environmental management," said the Navy official. "There are mangrove areas that wouldn't be there without the Navy."

Explosive ordnance disposal teams visit the range every six months to remove unexploded ordnance, or to clean up underwater areas. Navy cleanup teams keep the beaches spotless, according to some islanders.

In 1975, prior to the adoption of the memorandum, the Navy lost the use of another nearby island, Culebra, after the 700 residents there complained of the bombings.

Culebra had been complaining for years that Navy shelling was endangering citizens. The islanders said they wanted to develop their land to attract tourists.

The protest snowballed and drew congressional support. In 1973, then-Secretary of Defense Elliot L. Richardson ordered the Navy to leave the island.

The Navy did.

Culebra, according to Navy officials, never developed into a tourist attraction, mainly because there is too little water to support any major development.

"Without Vieques, our backs are against the wall," said a Navy official.

"There will be readiness impacts and repercussions that are significant and long and far-reaching in terms of training and readiness."

The bombing range, used by all service branches, plus NATO countries, is where carrier battle groups are trained prior to deploying overseas for six months at a time.

"There really isn't any alternative," the Navy official said. "We are looking at it from every angle, from every possible alternative. There is not a fall-back plan and people need to know that if we are forced out of there, there is no alternative."

Public opinion is as diverse on the future use of Vieques as the factions lobbying for Puerto Rico's future, it appears.

Some hotel owners on Vieques, for example, would like the Navy to stop its bombing, but don't want the Navy or some other agency to hold the land in trust for conservation.

They see the island sprouting new hotels to lure tourism and solve unemployment.

Then again, other local hotel owners want to see the character of the land preserved, with little new development. Peace and quiet is their goal.

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