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Military toxics and health in Vieques topics at congressional hearings in Washington today


12 March 2009

Press Release

Military Toxics and health in Vieques topics at congressional hearings in Washington today

-ATSDR director forced to admit ignorance on Vieques and commit to reexamining studies by his agency on Vieques.

Vieques, military toxics and health were topics at congressional hearings today (Thursday) in Washington, DC, where the House Committee on Science and Technology, Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight looked into serious flaws in studies by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).  Congressmen Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Steve Rothman (D-NJ) energetically raised questions before the agency director, Dr. Howard Frumkin, about ATSDR studies in Vieques that denied any relationship between military contamination and that community’s health crisis.

In his statement, Congressman Grayson used Vieques as an example of ATSDR’s history of “… trivializing health concerns and failing to stop the ingestion of poisons and the spread of cancer.”  He said Vieques is not an isolated incident.

Congressman Rothman forced the Director of ATSDR to admit he had no knowledge of the agency’s Vieques work and to agree to re examine the issue.

Scientists from universities in Puerto Rico and the United States as well as community groups like the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CRDV), have for years criticized ATSDR findings that appear designed to relieve the Navy of all responsibility for the environmental destruction and its impact on the health of Viequenses.

“Although the Navy stopped bombing several years ago, they continue to poison our environment and our people,” said CRDV spokesperson, Nilda Medina.  “These congressional hearings on ATSDR give us some hope that the new US government is interested in doing justice for our community by compensating for environmental and health degradation caused by decades of bombing from jets, ships, bazookas, mortars, tanks and experimentation with new weapons, including the use of uranium tipped projectiles,” added the Vieques activist.

Military toxics and health in Vieques was also discussed at two recent international forums.  In Hawaii, US scientist, Dr. James Porter (University of Georgia), commented about thousands of unexploded bombs on the east end of Vieques, “… we now know that these munitions liberate cancer-causing substances and endanger marine life.” Porter made the comments during the Second International Dialogue on Submerged Munitions at the end of February in Honolulu.  The topic was presented again at an international conference on foreign military bases held in Washington, DC at the beginning of this month.

Flavio Cumpiano, Esq., Puerto Rican lawyer in the federal capital and CRDV representative in the US during the struggle to get the Navy out of Vieques, and lawyer John Arthur Eaves Jr., who represents a substantial number of Viequenses with claims against the Navy, were instrumental in provoking interest and participation by the congressmen, thereby assuring a critical discussion of ATSDR studies on the impacts of US Navy practices in Vieques. The CRDV expressed its gratitude to Cumpiano, Eaves and Congressmen Grayson and Rothman, and to the staff at their offices, for this effort in favor of social justice for Vieques.  The Viequenses also thanked Doug Pasternak and Jane Wise, from the Subcommittee staff, for their work preparing today’s hearing and their report on ATSDR – published yesterday – that includes a summary of the criticism of ATSDR work on Vieques.

The CRDV urges the Congress and President Obama to take this opportunity to understand more correctly the enormous damage done by the US Navy on Vieques and to take necessary steps to begin a process of justice for this isolated and poor community of Puerto Rico.

Contact: R. Rabin, CPRDV Vieques  787 375-0525

Statement by Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL) at today’s hearing:

Thank you for coming before this committee to talk about an important subject.  Vieques is a beautiful island in Puerto Rico, and its economy is based on fishing and tourism.  It is also an island that for 62 years served as a military testing ground for the Navy.  The military used, among other weapons, chemicals such as napalm, Agent Orange, and depleted uranium in and around the waters of Vieques.  In 2003, the Navy ceased military testing, and the area became a superfund site because of the high presence of heavy metals and toxins.  It’s being cleaned up, but much chemical residue remains.  Dangerous levels of these heavy metals and toxins have shown up in the crabs, in the fish, in the goats, in the horses, in the vegetation, and in the people who live there.

The health statistics in Vieques show the consequences of these toxins. Compared to normal residents of Puerto Rico, residents of Vieques have a 269% increased chance of cancer, a 73% increased chance of heart problems, a 64% increased chance of hypertension, and a 58% increased chance of diabetes.  Infant mortality in most of Puerto Rico is decreasing; in Vieques, it is increasing, and has been since 1980.  A May 2001 study looking at the hair of residents in Vieques found that 73% of subjects were contaminated with aluminum and 30% of children under ten showed toxic levels of mercury.  Other heavy metals such as lead and cadmium were also found in high proportions.

One of my constituents, Rubén Ojeda, a former fisherman in the area, told me “Almost every person I know in Vieques has cancer or a family member who has cancer or other serious illnesses.”  Ruben fished while the Navy dropped bombs around him, and suffers from heart and respiratory diseases, as well as deafness.  His mother has anemia, high blood pressure and diabetes, his uncle died of cancer, and several of his fellow fishermen friends also died of cancer, at young ages.  In other words, in Vieques, heavy metals poison the land and water.  And the population carries this poison in its bloodstream.  None of this is in dispute.

And yet, somehow, when the government tested the area, it stated that the poisons in the fish, crabs, and vegetation posed no danger to the residents. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is supposed to protect our children from poisons at superfund sites, actually wrote “it is safe to eat seafood from the coastal waters and near-shore lands”, and that “residents have not been exposed to harmful levels of chemicals resulting from Navy training activities” These remarkable statements should not be a surprise for anyone who has followed the life of the ATSDR.  This agency, of course, is famous for ignoring the dangers of formaldehyde in the trailers used by Katrina victims.  For that, the agency was publicly chided by its own chief toxicologist, who had been cut out of the loop after raising concerns about the scientific basis for the agency’s analysis.

In case after case, documented in the excellent report put together by the Science and Technology Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, the ATSDR has trivialized health concerns and failed to stop the ingestion of poisons and the spreading of cancer.  In other words, Vieques is not an isolated incident.  This is a problem of leadership, structure, and agency culture. From its inception in the early 1980s, the ATSDR has fought with its bureaucratic rivals, short-changed science and public health, and as a result, has let children be poisoned.  This too should not be a surprise. The Reagan administration, which oversaw the creation of the ATSDR, never found an environmental protection it did not try to dismantle.  Despite these origins, there are good and conscientious employees within the ATSDR, and I am hopeful that we can work to restructure the agency so that its leadership is committed to protecting the public from harm.  This should at the very least start with an acknowledgement that its work in Vieques is flawed, and a commitment to reassess the site, taking into account the various independent studies which show elevated health risks in the area.

One of the most important jobs that government has is to protect people. And here we have before us a clear case of failure.  This must not stand. Thank you, and I look forward to this conversation.

P.O. BOX 1424

Tel. (787) 741-0716  787 375-0525    E mail:  [email protected]

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