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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 by cancer.

'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 Lujan.
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.

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.


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 last year.

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 bomb explodes.''


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 toxics department.

''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.


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 areas.

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 finds.

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 that.

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 as Peru.


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 to Vieques.

''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 Action Center.

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.


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 said.

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 ailments.

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 then.''

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