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Keep Base, Lose Live Fire

July 17, 1999
Copyright © 1999 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

Arrogance. That sums up the U.S. Navy's response to complaints about live bombings at a U.S. base on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

Navy Secretary Richard Danzig this week unveiled an internal review's results. To no one's surprise, he underscored the base's significance, calling it one of a kind. But then he announced that the Navy must use real explosives during training on Vieques, that no alternative exists.

The Navy's position suggests little interest in compromise. It essentially slaps Puerto Ricans -- especially Vieques residents -- in the face. Popular criticism of the base has increased since debris from an errant bomb killed a civilian guard and wounded others in April.

Puerto Ricans worry -- rightfully -- that more accidents could happen, especially with thousands of people living just a few miles from the testing area. Civilians shouldn't be exposed to such dangers.

Puerto Ricans have banded together to ask the Navy to stop using real explosives. The Navy temporarily suspended live-ammunition tests. But now it seems as though the brass plans to resume those tests.

Bad idea.

That would force Puerto Rico to walk away from that contentious issue with nothing but a promise from the Navy to scale back the use of live ammunition.

Oh, the Navy also tossed Vieques a bone, offering to beef up its economic-development efforts on the island. That almost goes without saying, given how much land the Navy controls on Vieques. It plays a key role in the island's economy.

The Navy should soften its stance. Otherwise, it risks perpetual hostility over Vieques.

Tensions stemming from the training have intensified to the point that many Puerto Ricans want the Navy to get out altogether.

That wouldn't make sense, because Vieques plays such a vital role in U.S. national security. All branches of the U.S. military train there. It has helped to hone the Navy's skills before every major conflict since World War II. The base and surrounding areas offer a unique combination of accessible training with consistently good weather.

But surely training can continue without endangering Vieques' civilians. Most of the testing on the island already uses nonexplosive ammunition. The Navy should increase that to 100 percent and find uninhabited areas to conduct tests using real explosives.

That's an acceptable compromise.

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