Vieques’ Victories…and Challenges Ahead

by John Lindsay-Poland

On May 1, 2003 the US Navy officially closed the bombing range in Vieques, Puerto Rico and turned over 14,500 acres on the eastern side of the island to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Then-Navy Secretary Gordon England had certified on January 10, 2003 that alternative sites and methods in Florida, North Carolina and at sea would replace the bombing range in Vieques, used by the Navy for more than 60 years for training and weapons tests.

The Navy’s departure is testament to the effectiveness of widespread nonviolent protest, including civil disobedience resulting in jail time, by more than a thousand Puerto Ricans and their supporters. “The level of protests, attempted incursions, and isolated successful incursions generally remains high when Battle Group training occurs on the island.The Navy has devoted significant resources to maintain range security and safety, ” wrote Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vernon Clark in a letter accompanying the certification. “Navy’s departure from Vieques will relieve us from this burden.”

The island of Vieques has a population of 9,300. Viequenses and supporters celebrated the closure of the range in emotional ceremonies on May 1. “I am absolutely content, and from this happiness I am getting energy for what’s ahead,” said Mario Rodríguez Valledor, a leader of Todo Puerto Rico con Vieques, an island-wide coalition. Carlos “Prieto” Ventura, a fisherman whose father died of cancer, said that the triumph of Vieques “dignifies all the struggles” carried out against military bases in other parts of the world.

The struggle for environmental cleanup and to recover the lands formerly occupied by the Navy will be difficult and long. The bombing range has high levels of heavy metals and other contamination as a result of bombing and other military uses. Most people believe these levels have caused the community’s high rate of cancer – 27% higher than the rest of Puerto Rico – and other diseases, through contamination of air, water, and shellfish.

By requiring that the 900-acre impact area be managed by Fish & Wildlife as a “wilderness area”, and the remaining lands be run as a wildlife refuge, Congress undermined environmental cleanup, since the extent of cleanup is normally determined by the intensity of civilian uses planned for the land. The Navy announced that it has dedicated only $2 million to cleanup in eastern Vieques next year. That is just a fraction of the annual cost for cleanup of other ranges, such as Kaho’olawe in Hawai’i, where even $40 million a year over ten years has not met cleanup goals.

The impact area, having been bombed for 60 years, is totally inconsistent with the kind of land defined as wilderness in the Wilderness Act. This discrepancy should be a factor in considering cleanup actions in the impact area, since the restrictions on use in the Wilderness Act were designed for areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.”

Meanwhile, the Navy and Department of Interior secretly negotiated a transfer agreement, signed April 30, that is likely to further limit environmental cleanup. Any soil sampling or other ground-disturbing activity (such as the use of plants to draw heavy metals out of the ground) in areas where there are “institutional controls” will require the Navy’s approval. Institutional controls are mechanisms such as deed restrictions or laws that, in theory, prevent people from being exposed to contamination or explosives, but in practice are often ineffective. In Vieques, the lands where this will apply include not only the impact area, but probably other areas as well. Because the Navy is liable for cleanup of any release of contamination that happens as a result of activities that they approve, it is likely to deny permission for such activities. Without independent soil sampling, we may never find out what and where contamination is present.

Vieques community groups have demanded participation in the process, including community hearings with government agencies to promote public participation in decision-making. The groups, which include the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques and the Vieques Women’s Alliance, as well as religious leaders, fishermen, veterans, youth, and others, also called for a comprehensive environmental cleanup and the clear prohibition of future military activities.

Guidelines for community-based development are being adopted by a transition committee for Vieques appointed by the governor. (See the website of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques <http://www.prorescatevieques.org>.) Puerto Rican Governor Sila Calderón also plans to request the placement of Vieques on the Superfund National Priorities List. Yet if Congress approves legislation currently before it exempting the Pentagon from many environmental laws, the cards will be even more stacked against cleanup.

Contact Congressional offices to support cleanup in Vieques and oppose environmental exemptions for the military proposed in the 2004 Defense Authorization bill.
Congressional Switchboard: 202-224-3121.

John works for the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He can be reached at <johnlp@igc.org>.