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Navy Fires Back Over Vieques

by Tamara Lytle

July 10, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON -- Navy officials Friday called a Puerto Rican commission's proposal to shut down all military operations on the island of Vieques "skewed" and inaccurate.

The Navy disagreed with the report as well as the testimony Friday of Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello and Secretary of State Norma Burgos, who spoke before the presidential Special Panel on Military Operations in Vieques.

That group was commissioned by President Clinton after the April death of a civilian security guard who was hit by an errant bomb on the Navy base at Vieques, an island of Puerto Rico.

The presidential panel, whose first meeting was Friday, will give recommendations to Clinton in August on whether the Navy should be allowed to keep operating on Vieques and, if so, what activities will be allowed. Meanwhile, the Navy has a moratorium on the controversial live-ammunition exercises on the island.

Rossello told the panel that the Navy should be barred from Vieques because it is endangering the civil rights of citizens there. The Navy base has been dangerous, has thwarted economic-development opportunities, has damaged the environment and has disturbed the peace, Rossello said.

Despite Puerto Rico's history of contentious politics, he said, the population is unanimous in wanting the Navy out. A special governor's commission, which encompassed all of the island's main political parties, reached that conclusion June 30.

"We the people of Puerto Rico have collectively determined that enough is enough," Rossello said.

But Cmdr. Brian Cullin, spokesman for Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, called the report "skewed." He disagreed on the environmental record, as well as the safety and economic issues.

The report by the governor's commission said the death in April of David Sanes Rodriguez was the result of just the latest in a string of errors that put citizens at risk.

But the Navy's rebuttal document contends "the civilian population off the range has never been at risk" since the 1940s.

Rossello and his panel have complained that Vieques shoulders an unfair burden for the nation's defense by hosting live-ammunition testing close to a civilian population. The live-ammunition portion of Vieques is about eight miles from the civilian population.

But Navy documents list four East Coast ranges with civilian populations within 20 miles, including Eglin and Pinecastle in Florida.

Cullin said the Navy has protected the environment by using environmentally sensitive areas as buffer zones where military exercises don't take place.

But Burgos showed the presidential panel photos of burned-out hills covered in unexploded shells and of former lagoons that have been cut off from their water supplies by Navy construction.

Cullin said the Navy has worked to develop economic projects to boost employment on Vieques, including help in bringing in two hotels. But he conceded those efforts have not been successful enough. Rossello said the Navy's ownership of three-fourths of the island has impeded development, especially of the tourism and fishing industries.

The presidential panel consists of two retired military leaders, a former congressman and chairman Francis M. Rush Jr., acting assistant secretary of defense.

It meets again Friday to hear from Carlos Romero, Puerto Rico's delegate to Congress. Then, on July 23 it will hear from the Navy. Commissioners will visit Vieques before making a decision.

Although training on the island is under the moratorium, the Navy is in the middle of three weeks of exercises in the waters around Puerto Rico.

Lt. Cmdr. Herman Phillips said the John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier and its group is practicing there, 50 miles offshore, before being deployed to the Mediterranean. The 12 Navy ships and 70 planes will finish the exercise Monday. Those exercises include live munitions at sea but not on Vieques, as they usually would, he said.

The Navy will issue its own report in about a week on what should be done at Vieques. On Friday Cullin repeated the Navy case that the training exercises at Vieques are key to troop readiness and can't be done anywhere else, because they involve land, sea and air together.

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