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Murkowski: Senate To Consider Bill Endangering Vieques Plan

February 21, 2000
Copyright © 2000 DOW JONES & COMPANY, INC. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP)--U.S. senators will begin considering a bill in March that could jeopardize a compromise between President Bill Clinton and Puerto Rican leaders over a controversial Navy bombing range, Sen. Frank Murkowski said Monday.

Murkowski said the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs, would hold hearings on a measure allowing the U.S. Navy to keep half its property on Vieques island, site of a bombing range off the U.S. territory's eastern coast. The other half, used for storing weapons, would be sold to the island's 9,400 residents.

A decision on whether to continue military exercises would be put off until later, Murkowski said, adding he expected Vieques residents to reject Clinton's offer of $50 million in return for continued bombing.

"I think that is an unfortunate and disagreeable proposal," said Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who visited the bombing range this weekend.

He made his proposal at a conference of the Aspen Institute think tank, the same day that some 85,000 people marched in San Juan to demand the Navy leave Vieques immediately.

Murkowski said that even if exercises stop, the Navy needs to retain control of the range because the bombs, mines and shells scattered across it over nearly 60 years of exercises have made it uninhabitable.

"The Navy has polluted it, and I don't know if it can ever be cleaned up," he said. "If those lands are turned over ... the Navy would be exposed to endless liability."

His bill could derail a compromise worked out by Clinton requiring the Navy to clean up and abandon the island completely if residents vote to expel them in a referendum.

Murkowski called Clinton's offer - and his proposal for a referendum on the island's future relationship with the U.S. - an attempt to win the support of Puerto Ricans living in New York City for Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign.

Murkowski had introduced a bill in September proposing the Navy surrender all its lands in Vieques. He said he would amend the bill and begin hearings as early as March 7.

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