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Navy Faces Legal Onslaught In Fight To Keep Vieques


July 1, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- The mighty U.S. Navy is facing a tough new enemy in its long-running battle to continue bombarding a target range on Vieques -- lawyers.

A Mississippi law firm representing 200 Vieques residents has sued the Navy for $40 million, signed up another 1,800 residents and opened a branch office on this 21-mile-long island, pop. 9,400.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. heads a powerful coalition of groups planning to file another suit in August, Puerto Rico's Bar Association is preparing yet another and a Puerto Rican lawyer is seeking clients for a fourth.

``There are lawyers everywhere on the island,'' said Gordon Rumore, 57, a former environmental specialist with the Pennsylvania Department of Health who retired to Vieques in 1998.

For the past year, opposition to the bombing range has been led by activists who charge that toxins released by the bombs are making residents ill and that the Navy's presence is proof of Puerto Rico's status as a U.S. ``colony.''

A Puerto Rico Health Department survey published in 1992 showed that throughout the 1960s Vieques had a lower incidence of cancer than the rest of Puerto Rico. But it began rising after 1971, when the Navy stepped up bombing on Vieques after it was forced to close down a bigger range on the nearby island of Culebra.

By the 1980s the Vieques rate had surpassed the overall rate in the U.S. Commonwealth, and in 1991 it stood at 27 percent higher than the rest of Puerto Rico, according to the 1992 survey.


Doctors in Vieques say islanders also suffer from high rates of stillbirths and birth defects, various types of skin diseases, asthma and other respiratory diseases.

``We have no smokestack industries on Vieques, so the only explanation for the high rates of diseases can only be the range,'' said Dr. Rafael Rivera Castaño, a Tulane-educated epidemiologist who lives on Vieques and has joined the protests to close the range.

Some 600 protesters have been arrested over the past 14 months for trespassing on the 920-acre range in attempts to block the bombardments, including more than 250 in the past week.

``We are all ready to run into the range, right under the shells, to make this stop,'' said Vieques fisherman Carlos Zenón, who spent six months in prison in 1983 for a three-year string of range occupations.

But the USS George Washington Battle Group managed to complete a round of bombardments this week with nonexplosive dummy munitions, and Navy officials are confident they can keep the range clear of protesters whenever they need it by using tracking dogs and night-vision and infra-red devices.

While protesters have vowed to continue sneaking into the range every time a Navy battle group returns, for the time being the battle appears to be shifting to the courtroom.


``There's tons of actionable stuff here,'' said Jeffrey Browning, 31, a legal researcher manning the Vieques branch of the John Arthur Eaves law firm in Jackson, Miss. He hasn't seen the film Erin Brockovich, but he does the same kind of work, getting clients to fill out forms needed to sue the Navy and searching for documents and other evidence that can be used in court.

The Eaves firm filed suit in May on behalf of 200 Viequenses seeking $40 million as reimbursement for medical expenses on ailments, such as cancer, allegedly caused by heavy metals released into the air and soil by Navy bombs.

And that's just the beginning, Browning said.

The suit will soon be joined by 1,800 newly signed clients, he said, and expand to seek payments for residents who allegedly died from toxins-related ailments as well as for future health monitoring of island residents.

The suit later will also demand payment for properties damaged by the bombs' shock waves, and perhaps even for the Navy's purchase and seizure of the lands for the target range during World War II, Browning added.


Navy officials have steadfastly denied any links between their bombs and ailments, and challenged the accuracy of the 1992 survey by the Puerto Rico Health Department, saying that in a community of only 9,400 residents a few cases can throw statistics significantly off kilter.

``But if you go to Vieques, every family in some way has had to deal with cancer,'' John Arthur Eaves Jr., son of the firm's founder, told a news conference in Washington after the suit was filed.

The firm joined several Puerto Rican organizations to finance a study, long delayed by a lack of funds, that showed high concentrations of heavy metals in both hair samples taken from Vieques residents and 67 soil samples taken from the range during one of the invasions last year.

The Eaves firm, which specializes in suing government and industries, is also representing several victims of the so-called Gulf War syndrome.

Another lawyer, Daniel Rivera Cruz, from San Juan, capital of Puerto Rico, has also been meeting with potential Vieques clients for a separate suit against the Navy, along the same lines as Eaves' suit.

The Puerto Rico Bar Association is gathering evidence for a suit seeking to force an end to the bombardments, charging Navy violations of the federal Environmental Protection Act and Puerto Rico regulations.


Kennedy has taken the lead in a coalition of environmental and public interest groups preparing a suit to force the Navy to close the range permanently because of the environmental problems allegedly created by 60 years of bombardments.

The coalition includes the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Pace University Law School's Environmental Law Clinic in New York and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund of New York.

Kennedy, nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, said the suit will also accuse the Navy of violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act because Vieques is home to several protected species, including manatees and turtles.

Navy denials of any link between its bombs and diseases amount to ``tobacco science,'' he said in a CBS interview last week, referring to the tobacco industry's steadfast denials of any links between smoking and cancer.

Protesters first occupied the target range after a stray bomb from an F-18 killed a civilian guard in April 1999.

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