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The Allentown Morning Call

U.S. Owes Vieques A Cleanup Of Its Environmental Contamination

22 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Allentown Morning Call. All rights reserved.

More than 50 years of bombings and other training operations by the U.S. military on an island east of Puerto Rico couldn't help but leave environmental contamination in their wake. Former Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Caldern fought hard for the cleanup of the eastern portion of Vieques, plus the nearby island of Culebra.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently acknowledged the seriousness of the contamination, adding Vieques to its National Priorities List -- also known as "Superfund" sites -- scheduled for cleanup.

Federal funds will pay to clean up a variety of dangerous chemicals listed by the EPA as possible contaminants on Vieques and in surrounding waters, including: napalm, TNT, depleted uranium, PCBs, solvents and mercury. Some of the same chemicals were discovered on Culebra, but the EPA hasn't finished its assessment.

U.S. involvement with Vieques dates to the eve of World War II, when the United States purchased two-thirds of the island. The Navy valued Vieques because battle groups could engage in joint training exercises with amphibious landings of Marines, shelling from ships and aerial bombardment from fighter jets. Military exercises took place in areas of Culebra between 1902 and 1975. But Vieques is the better known of the two because of a fatal accident and public protests. During a practice bombing run in 1999, Navy jets accidentally killed a civilian Puerto Rican security guard when bombs were dropped on a military observation tower. The Clinton administration reached an agreement with Puerto Rican officials that would have resulted in a referendum on U.S. training exercises in Vieques.

But President Bush surprised even the Pentagon when he announced in 2001 that the Navy would end its exercises on Vieques in May 2003. The abrupt closure of the naval station there about a year ago left thousands without jobs, but the base had become obsolete. The federal government has come a long way from confrontations with Vieques residents over live-ammunition drills. Placing the area on the Superfund list reflects a proper moral duty to both Puerto Ricans and the environment.


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