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THE MIAMI HERALD
Puerto Rican Islanders Sue Navy Over Its Bombing Range
Cancer rate is claimed to be military's fault
by Juan Tamayo
December 12, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- From his home on a tiny hillside neighborhood
dubbed ''Cancer Heights'' because the disease has struck so many
of its homes, Fernando Robinson recalled the neighbors killed
'The two old sisters down there, the man next to them, my stepfather
up there,'' the 43-year-old fisherman said as he swept a sun-bronzed
arm around the 40 or so homes in the neighborhood officially named
Robinson then pointed a block away, to the gates of a U.S. Navy
firing range closed since two stray bombs from an F-18 jet fighter
killed a civilian guard in April. ''And that's where it comes
from,'' he said with a grim nod.
Even as the Navy pushes to resume limited bombing, mounting
allegations that toxic residues from the explosives are causing
cancer among residents of the tiny island of Vieques may eventually
force the range's total closure.
About 65 Vieques cancer patients and property owners filed
a $109 million suit against the Navy just last week, charging
they had been ''exposed to toxic and hazardous substances by the
naval and aerial bombardment.
The cancer rate on Vieques has been reported to be 26 percent
higher than that of Puerto Rico as a whole. Doctors say islanders
also suffer from high rates of birth defects, skin diseases, asthma
and other respiratory diseases.
''In such a small island, with one single factory, the only
explanation for these horrible things is the range,'' said Dr.
Rafael Rivera Castaño, a Tulane-educated Vieques epidemiologist
who wants the Navy to leave the island.
The Navy flatly rejects the charge. ''We can't prove a negative,
but there's no evidence at all linking our activities to any of
this,'' Navy spokeswoman Cmdr. Karen Jeffries said.
YEARS OF POUNDING
Navy offer to use 'dud' bombs,
pay $40 million is turned down
For 58 years, the Navy has pounded the live-fire range on the
eastern third of Vieques, the 33,000-acre ''baby island'' eight
miles east of Puerto Rico, with airplane bombs, ships' cannon
and Marine artillery.
The Navy also owns the western third of Vieques, storing munitions
in bunkers dug into its hills. About 9,300 civilians live in the
middle third of the island. Vieques is 21 miles long and four
miles at its widest point.
Navy officials, seeking a compromise to reopen a bombing range
the Navy has called critical to its war readiness, offered on
Dec. 4 to drop only inert ''dummy bombs and pay $40 million if
they could use the range for five more years.
But Puerto Rican officials and Vieques residents rejected the
deal, complaining that the Navy bombings have blocked economic
development on the island, which has miles of stunning white-sand
beaches yet only one luxury hotel and a poverty rate one-third
higher than Puerto Rico's.
FACTS ARE ELUSIVE
Hard data on the bombings' impact on the health of residents
is more difficult to come by, since neither Puerto Rico's Health
Department nor the Navy has regularly monitored air, water or
soil quality on Vieques.
It is a failure that critics say shows Puerto Rican government
negligence and the Navy's autocratic behavior in a U.S. Commonwealth
captured by U.S. troops during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
''The Navy . . . inspected restaurants and brothels to protect
their own, but never inspected the air or the water to protect
others,'' said Gordon Rumore, 57, an environmental health specialist
with the Pennsylvania Department of Health who retired to Vieques
Rumore triggered the first serious investigation of the controversy
when he filed a complaint this year with the Atlanta-based U.S.
Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry.
''I was swimming one day in February when the Navy was bombing,
and I noticed the clouds of earth [sent up by the explosions]
were drifting right into civilian areas,'' Rumore said.
''I looked up the explosives on the federal registry of toxic
substances, and they were all there,'' he added. ''Just imagine,
50 years of accumulated heavy metals, stirred up every time another
Islanders contend that over the decades, the bombs and shells
from ships' cannon have literally flattened entire hills on the
range and polluted the air, water and soil with toxic residues
from the explosives and metal casings.
Chromium, a metal used in munitions, and RDX, one of the most
common military explosives, have each been branded a ''possible
human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's
''It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that this stuff
ain't good for you, said Ron Jones, a Florida International University
professor who studies heavy-metal pollution.
Prevailing winds on Vieques blow from east to west -- from
the range to residential areas. And the area most directly on
the path of the clouds sent up by the Navy bombs is Lujan, the
hillside neighborhood known as Cancer Heights.
''I know my cancer came from the range, said Edwin Menendez,
a Lujan resident now 20 years old and healthy after undergoing
eight rounds of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy for testicular
and lung cancer.
Edwin's sisters Alejandra, 5, and Esperanza, 2, suffer from
asthma, and his mother, Yolanda, found a lump on her right breast
two weeks ago. She's waiting for an appointment for a checkup
on the Puerto Rican mainland.
TOXIC FORCES PROBED
Agency agrees to look for toxic residues from Navy bombings
Investigators of the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease
Registry were in Vieques last month and officially accepted Rumore's
complaint, in effect agreeing to study whether the prevailing
winds are driving toxic residues from the bombings into residential
The agency is now gathering any available data on air, soil
and water quality on Vieques and will later ask the EPA and the
Puerto Rican government's
Environmental Protection Board to fill in whatever gaps it
Rear Adm. Andrew A. Granuzzo, the Navy's top environmental
officer, told Congress in July that the military would cooperate
with the U.S. toxic substance agency ''even though there is no
reason to believe that Navy actions are involved'' in the allegedly
high incidence of cancer on Vieques.
But the Navy has not been very cooperative in the past.
When Puerto Rico's Environmental Protection Board tried to
send 12 inspectors to take water samples at the range in August,
Navy officials rejected one team member, a private consultant
on munitions, saying he was gathering evidence for a possible
lawsuit. The visit was canceled.
The Navy only recently confirmed that it had used napalm bombs
and accidentally fired 267 cannon rounds tipped with depleted
uranium on the range. The latter is banned from any use on U.S.
soil by federal regulations.
Navy officials said ground-water samples they tested in August
were found to be free of residues from explosives, but they declined
to make the full study public, citing the possibility of a lawsuit.
Wednesday's class-action lawsuit was filed on the same day
that two University of Georgia marine biologists reported finding
large numbers of live or leaky bombs on the ocean floor off the
Navy range, as well as two wrecked ships carrying 1,000 to 1,300
drums containing unidentified chemicals.
Officials of the Environmental Protection Board said the Navy
last applied for a water quality certificate, required to carry
out bombings on Vieques, in 1989.
The agency made a clerical error and never processed the application,
officials added, but the Navy never filed another request after
Adding to the health concerns, the Pentagon is building a powerful
new radar on Vieques, 1,500 feet from a civilian neighborhood.
It is designed to monitor drug-smuggling airplanes as far away
The radar was originally to be built on the ''big island''
of Puerto Rico, but area residents who complained that its powerful
electromagnetic waves could endanger their health forced the shift
''The military is environmentally bad in every place, but on
Vieques the regulations are simply not enforced. It writes its
own ticket,'' said Sarah Peisch, director of the independent Environmental
At the heart of the controversy over the incidence of diseases
in Vieques is a 1992 cancer survey by the Puerto Rican Department
of Health, based on data collected since 1960.
The study showed that the rate of cancer in Vieques was lower
than the overall rate for Puerto Rico throughout the 1960s, but
began rising in the 1970s and surpassed the U.S. Commonwealth's
rate in the early 1980s.
Rivera Castaño, the Vieques epidemiologist, noted that
the Navy stepped up its bombardments on Vieques in 1971, after
protesters forced the Navy to stop using another range on the
nearby islet of Culebra. The Navy abandoned Culebra in 1975.
VIEWS OF CANCER RATE
Navy Vice Adm. Robert J. Natter, in a column published by the
newspaper San Juan Star last month, pointed out that the study
also showed that Vieques' cancer rate had dropped below that of
Puerto Rico as a whole between 1989 and 1992.
Rivera Castaño replied that was because the Department
of Health was forced to close its Cancer Registry, which used
to backtrack through old medical records for misreported cases,
for budgetary reasons in 1992.
Vieques cancer victims must go to ''big island'' hospitals
for treatment, and their cases are sometimes misreported as originating
in the municipalities where they are treated, the epidemiologist
Whatever the truth of the allegations about high levels of
cancer on Vieques, island residents have grown so apprehensive
that they now blame the bombing range for almost any of their
Fisherman Fernando Robinson blames ''something evil over there''
for a yearlong throat inflammation he suffered three years ago,
when he was setting his fish and crab traps in the waters off
the bombing range.
Robinson acknowledged that he could not recall any strange
odor in the air or noticeable pollution in the waters. ''But it
was there. I knew there was something bad there,'' he insisted.
''Two other fishermen working in that area became thin as rails,
so finally I just abandoned all my traps,'' he said. ''I never
even went back to get them. And I haven't had anything wrong since