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The Gazette

About As Much Superfund As A Family Can Have

By SEAN PAIGE, Editorial page editor

20 March 2005
Copyright © 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

This year, for spring break, I'm vacationing with the family at a Superfund site. Actually, it's on the waiting list to be listed. But that's just as well. There's nothing that ruins a vacation spot's ambiance faster than government people showing up in those blue haz- mat suits.

Our destination this year is Culebra, an island off Puerto Rico. It's within sight of another, more famous Superfund siteing, Vieques, which until recently served as the U.S. military's most important amphibious warfare training ground. The Navy beat a retreat from Vieques in 2003, under pressure from protesters who claimed the war games were harming turtles and locals. The service is still searching for a suitable replacement, with little luck. Americans want a military, it seems, as long as it doesn't make noise and kick up dust in their back yard.

Now, according to reports, Vieques islanders are fearing another invasion, by big-time resort developers, whom I've long suspected were silent partners in the anti-Navy protests. After all, the kind of people who stay at a Wyndham or Marriott resort don't like having their cups of conch chowder rattled by falling bombs, even in the distance. It's hard teeing off on the 14th hole with an A-6 Intruder screaming overhead.

Actually, the Navy and Marines trained conscientiously at Vieques, which is why the island remained a popular destination in spite of the fact that, for a few weeks each year, one end of the island hosted war games -- games that served as a final exam before elements of the Atlantic Fleet deployed overseas. Training sometimes was halted if turtles, birds and other wildlife got in the way. A turtle hatchery was built by the Navy. And everything was done, within reason, to minimize damage. But live-fire training is live- fire training. Some impacts are unavoidable. It's part of the price we pay for giving our sailors, soldiers, flyers and Marines their best chance for survival when conflicts occur.

Many on Vieques, as well as the Puerto Rican mainland, wanted the Navy to stay, because the training site and nearby Roosevelt Rhodes Navy Base pumped a lot of money into the local economy. But these voices couldn't be heard above the din of protesters, who included a rogues gallery of American limousine liberals and vocational agitators. They came to Vieques to bask in the media spotlight, but haven't been heard from since. The Bush administration's cavein on Vieques still ranks as one of its worst decisions, for which it hasn't been called to account.

The Navy stopped training at Culebra three decades earlier, in the mid-1970s, so whatever environmental hazards await the family and me should be reduced. Actually, it's hard to tell the island once served as a surrogate war zone. Here and there, one can find trace evidence if one looks for it -- the rusting hulk of a tank in the surf, the abandoned helipad on the hill, gaps in the reef where the troops stormed ashore.

One way to tell the exploded ordinance from the unexploded is that the moray eels prefer to live in the former, according to a tip I received from a helpful local. The kids will, of course, be warned against touching or picking up anything suspiciously man-made, especially "sea shells" that set off the Geiger counter. But seriously, I'm just not worried. The island, only three decades after the military left, is wonderfully unspoiled, safe and serene. And I'd just as soon the Nervous Nellies stay away. If you don't want to tip-toe around old artillery shells, go to Club Med.

Perhaps, at the micro-environmental level, there's something to fear in Culebra. But I'm not about to let that get between me and a pia colada. There's a much greater risk to our health and safety, I know, in driving to the airport to catch the flight out, basking in the sun for a week without sunscreen, choking on a fish bone during dinner or losing an eye to a Mai-Tai umbrella.

When in Culebra, I'm reminded of how rapidly nature reclaims what human beings have disturbed, and how nature will, if given a chance, ruthlessly obliterate all vestiges of our presence. Human beings have a remarkable capacity to destroy and damage, to be sure, a subject of much self-flagellation these days. But we also tend to underestimate nature's ability to heal, or to recognize that man's impact on the planet will actually be minimal in the long run.

I have a geologist friend whom I've been urging to write a book, "Earth After Man," which would attempt to gauge how quickly the planet will rebound once our species fades from the scene. It's meant to humble those who vest mankind with the power to either "destroy" or "save" the planet -- claims I've always found arrogant and solipsistic. As we worry ourselves gray about which plant or animal species might go extinct on our watch, it's worth remembering that humans, too, are destined for extinction. That's as much a part of Earth's history and "nature" as creation or evolution.

This doesn't give us permission to abuse Mother Nature's amazing resilience, of course. But the healing evident on Culebra will happen on Vieques, too, even as the Navy wanders the world, like a Flying Dutchman, in a probably futile search for a comparable place to train. Any damage done to these islands had a beneficial end -- training our soldiers, sailors and flyers before we sent them into harm's way. So in my view, aware of the trade-offs involved, it's understandable and forgivable.

A week of beaching and boating on Culebra isn't for the faint of heart, to be sure. But Nietzsche tells us to "live dangerously" so we do. And besides, the rusting hulks of tanks make wonderful artificial reefs.

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