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“Nosotros No Tenemos Armas Para Echar A Pique Sus Fuerzas Navales,
Pero Tenemos el Arma de Echar a Pique Su Prestigio en El Mundo.” Albizu 1930

HomeAbout NBHRNViequesLa lucha continúa: Challenges for a Post-Navy Vieques (Part 2)

La lucha continúa: Challenges for a Post-Navy Vieques (Part 2)

(By Déborah Santana, continued)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Part 2Decontamination

Several recently published investigations bolster the argument that contamination generated by military activities are largely responsible for a greater—and rising—incidence of environmentally linked diseases in Vieques than in Puerto Rico as a whole, such as cancer, kidney failure and respiratory ailments. For example, a comparative study of mercury concentrations in reproductive-age women in Vieques, northeastern coastal Puerto Rico, and the east coast of the U.S. found that young women in rural, non-industrialized Vieques showed a much higher exposure to mercury than in the other, heavily industrialized areas. The study noted that the Environmental Protection Agency cited the Navy for over a hundred effluent water violations in Vieques, including discharge of mercury (EPA 1999), and that “no other source of mercury contamination has been identified in that island” (Ortiz Roque and López Rivera 2004: 756). Other studies found significant concentrations of heavy metals that form components of munitions in shallow-rooted cultivated plants in the civilian sector and fish and seafood commonly caught and eaten in Vieques (Massol Deyá and Díaz 2003; Acevedo 2004).

The Navy’s standard response to environmental contamination and health concerns in Vieques (as well as in other communities affected by military contamination) has been to utilize its own contracted experts and federal agencies—particularly the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)—to bolster its claims that military activities are not the source of heavy metals contamination and higher incidences of disease (ATSDR 2003). (3) Alternative explanations point to contamination from Vieques’ virtually non-existent agricultural and manufacturing sectors, allege more unhealthy lifestyles or significant genetic differences between Vieques and Puerto Rico despite evidence to the contrary, and blame “naturally occurring” heavy metals even though the two islands are geologically quite similar. Moreover, such arguments ignore data compiled by the Puerto Rico Department of Health showing that Vieques registered lower than average incidences of cancer and other diseases until after the Navy intensified its bombing of Vieques with conventional (bombs, missiles, etc.) and non conventional (depleted uranium, noxious biological warfare simulants, napalm, etc.) weapons in the 1970s (Nazario et al. 1998). None of this is surprising, however, since it is likely that any admission of responsibility by the Navy would enhance the possibility for success of several pending lawsuits, and increase pressure to spend more money on cleanup.

Some of the most pressing health issues in Vieques include the failure by the Puerto Rico Department of Health to provide results of epidemiological tests to Vieques participants, and arrange for necessary health treatment in a timely manner. In addition, a lack of trained personnel to, for example, operate dialysis machines in the island’s health center forces patients with kidney disease to travel to Fajardo at least three times per week—where, ironically, they are often cared for by nurses from Vieques who left home because they couldn’t find work.

Nonetheless, even if health services were to dramatically improve in Vieques, incidences of serious diseases are likely to continue to climb for many years unless the island is thoroughly decontaminated of more than sixty years of poisoning from millions of tons of conventional explosives and nonconventional weapons such as depleted uranium and napalm. Moreover, a truly effective cleanup should not limit itself to the lands within the western and eastern military sectors, because military activities and resultant contamination also affected the central “civilian” sector. For example, the municipal landfills regularly received wastes from the bases; they even contain bombs that accidentally landed there—far from the bombing range—and have yet to be recovered. Vieques residents, including several who had jobs inside the bases, have reported clandestine dumps for toxic military residue in the area just north of the island’s famous bioluminescent bay. The Navy has never confirmed local accounts of experimental spraying of mangroves near Media Luna Beach with Agent Orange in the early 1960s; nonetheless, it is well known and documented that various locations near civilian populations throughout Puerto Rico suffered environmental damage as part of that chemical weapon’s development. The virtually lifeless condition of the area in question suggests that some catastrophic event occurred, which should be investigated. In fact, significant resources should be devoted to a thorough investigation of military-induced contamination in the civilian zones—including identifying and removing unexploded munitions, which are often discovered in heavily used areas.

During the second half of 2004 a virtual deluge of draft documents requiring public commentary within a limited time frame threatened to inundate Vieques activists, leaving precious little time for educating and organizing the community. Documents specifically related to the cleanup process included a draft charter to govern the new Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), the proposed designation of Vieques (and possibly Culebra) as a Superfund site, a Community Relations Plan for the EPA, and scoping for a land management plan to be developed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for the lands placed under its control. A brief review illustrates some of the challenges activists currently face.

Since the 1980s all federal government agencies have been instructed to seek the most effective ways of facilitating community participation in processes that are likely to affect them. Efforts by the Defense Department to clean up and rehabilitate formerly used military sites are included in this directive. At first the military would select community members to sit on a Technical Review Committee (TRC); however, community organizations largely rejected it as failing to promote adequate representation, provide sufficient information exchange on cleanup efforts or encourage broad community participation. Since the mid-1990s the Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) has largely replaced the TRC as a mechanism for formal community participation. Among other distinctions between the two entities, community members elect their own representatives, and all meetings are open to the public. In addition, although the EPA and the Defense Department jointly developed the framework and the military approves the first membership list, each RAB writes and approves its own operating charter—including determining its own membership procedures. Some 200 RABs currently operate throughout the United States and its territories. While not perfect, experience shows that a self-directed and broadly representative RAB can provide an important tool for informing the community about cleanup issues and pressuring the military and regulatory agencies into responding to local issues and concerns.

After closing the NASD in 2001 the Navy formed a TRC in Vieques instead of a RAB; the military chose the members, decided on the TRC’s technical advisors, and held meetings without informing or inviting the general public. In addition, all documents and meetings were in English, even though Spanish is the primary—and usually only—language of the overwhelming majority of viequenses. The language problem began to be resolved towards the end of the TRC’s existence in 2004, when the Navy converted it into a RAB. Most of the charter members of the new RAB also belonged to the TRC; moreover, it appears that the draft charter proposed by the Navy at the first RAB meeting in August 2004 had been written and approved by the old TRC. Some of the new RAB members who had not belonged to the TRC have expressed concerns about possibly being marginalized by the more experienced ex-TRC majority. Some of the strongest criticisms of the old TRC were that its membership had not been representative of the Vieques community, and that it did not organize activities to inform the public during its nearly three years of meeting with the Navy regarding cleanup of the western lands. It remains to be seen whether the RAB will be able to broaden its representation and outreach and thus promote greater community input regarding the Navy’s cleanup efforts. It is also important to note that the RAB addressed cleanup issues only in the western lands; however, even before Vieques was designated as a Superfund site the Navy had begun to include discussion of the more complex eastern lands (including the former bombing range) within the mandate of the same RAB—which may prove too burdensome for the RAB as currently constituted.

In May 2003 Puerto Rico Governor Sila M. Calderón petitioned the EPA to place Vieques and Culebra (both formerly part of the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility, or AFTWF) in the National Priorities List (NPL) for environmental cleanup (also popularly known as the Superfund List). If approved, Vieques would be considered to be among the 100 priority federal cleanup sites. Moreover, since the responsible polluter was the federal government, rather than a private company, Congress must appropriate funding for cleanup within the defense budget. By the summer of 2004 the proposal had passed all initial stages (at least for Vieques; inclusion of Culebra was delayed), and public commentary was invited. The EPA published notices in various media and informed members of its Vieques mailing list well in advance of the October 12, 2004, deadline; the arrival of more than two thousand letters from organizations and individuals from Puerto Rico, the United States and internationally in favor of the proposal was evidence of continuing interest and solidarity with the ongoing Vieques struggle. Since no serious opposition had developed, most observers expected approval of the proposal to include Vieques as a Superfund site. Final approval was announced in February 2005; among other things, the EPA is now expected to take a more active role in overseeing the cleanup process. The fact that the EPA has opened and staffed an office in Vieques indicates that the cleanup process is expected to be long and costly.

Nonetheless, it must be stressed that it is not Superfund status that determines the level of cleanup of a site, but rather its planned future use. The necessary level of cleanup is determined by expected risks to human health. For example, a site that will be used for residences would imply more intensive human use than a wildlife refuge, and therefore would require more thorough cleanup. A report prepared by the Congressional Research Service during the summer of 2004 confirmed what many Vieques activists feared: that the Navy plans to use the current designation of half of the western lands and all of the eastern lands as wildlife refuge to argue that a budget of less than $200 million would adequately fulfill its cleanup obligations (Bearden and Luther 2004). Vieques-based officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have complained of problems getting enough community input for their Vieques National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan, a fifteen-year management plan that as of November 2004 did not yet exist. Part of the problem, no doubt, is that viequenses have often expressed resentment that the Navy transferred the lands to yet another federal agency; moreover, some traditional uses of the lands are now even more restricted than they were under the Navy, such as horseback riding, livestock grazing, crabbing and coconut gathering. While FWS argues that such activities amidst still-contaminated lands would endanger the public and interfere with wildlife protection, local residents respond that the restrictions violate long established cultural and economic practice in lands that have been inhabited for four thousand years. Designation of these lands as a nature refuge artificially excludes humans and provides a circular justification for not cleaning thoroughly, since restricted lands allegedly pose less risk to human health. Only an admission by the Navy that military contamination in the restricted areas migrates to and negatively impacts health in the civilian sector might force a more thorough cleanup of the lands under FWS control. This problem, among others, drives Vieques activists to seek the return of all of the lands to civilian control and balanced use for development as well as protection.

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