United States Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico
The Vieques, Puerto Rico Naval Training Range is located on the island of Vieques, just outside of the main island of Puerto Rico. The training range was used for military training at the island. The military installation ended operations in 2001 and there was a military presence on the island from 1941 until 2003.
- 1 Searching for a location
- 2 Base closure and clean-up
- 3 Protests against U.S. Navy
- 4 President Clinton
- 5 Protester History
- 6 Military withdraws
- 7 Contamination and health effects
- 8 Health risk speculation
- 9 See also
- 10 References
Searching for a location
The Department of the Navy started searching for a location to site a naval base during the 1940s. Land was purchased between 1941 to 1950 making up two parcels making up 22,000 acres or about two-thirds of the island. Of that 8,000 acres on the western end of the island was primarily used as a naval ammunition depot until the property was returned to the Municipality of Vieques on May 1, 2001.
The eastern end of the island was used for live training exercises, ship-to-shore gunfire, air-to-ground bombing and US Marine amphibious landings starting from the 1940s onward. Within that area was a 900 acre Live Impact Area (LIA) used for targeting live ordnance. The LIA was located at the eastern tip of the island and away from the civilian population.
Base closure and clean-up
After the base was closed, Puerto Rico Governor Sila Calderon requested Vieques be placed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency list as a designated EPA clean-up site. The EPA has listed the following contaminants or ordnance at the western portion of the naval station:
- Unexploded ordnance
- Remnants of exploded ordnance
- Depleted uranium along with other unspecified materials
The EPA reports the following may be at the eastern portion of the site:
Both the US Navy and the EPA are coordinating efforts and research efforts to clean up Vieques.
"To date, EPA has worked with the Navy to develop and implement a remedial investigation of certain areas of concern on Vieques.
On the Munitions Response Program, the Navy recently completed an expanded range assessment at the former Vieques Naval Training Range (VNTR). The Navy is also conducting a time critical removal action (TCRA) of munitions and explosives of concern (MEC), equivalent or larger than 20 mm, on the surface at the former Live Impact Area (LIA) and Eastern Conservation Area (ECA), Non-Time Critical Removal Action (NTCRA) of MEC on the surface at the Surface Impact Area (SIA), and NTCRA of subsurface MEC at selected roads and beaches within the former Vieques Naval Training Range. Under the Environmental Restoration Program, the Navy is conducting Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (RI/FS) at seven sites at the Former Naval Ammunition Support Detachment at west Vieques, and also four NTCRA for the removal of solid waste piles/debris was completed in FY09. On September 2008, a ROD was issued for one operable unit, AOC H. A ROD for AOC J, R and SWMU-7 (NASD) was signed on September 21, 2011 and SWMU-1 (VNTR) on September 29, 2011.Thirty Six (36) operable units has been investigated at the former VNTR. A decision was reached on ten (10) sites for No action. Site Inspection/Expanded Site Inspection (SI/ESI) for 26 operable units was completed in FY09. Five TCRA were completed and seventeen NTCRA, six RI/FS, three SI/ESI, and one EE/CA are underway."
The Navy will conduct an environmental investigation of its previously owned property under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to determine what cleanup actions are needed. The EPA has been providing technical assistance and guidance to the Navy on environmental issues related to the land transfer in western Vieques. However, it will be difficult to discover what measures the U.S. must take because thick jungle growth inhibits testing for contaminants. Furthermore, jungle growth cannot be easily removed because the forests are littered with unexploded ordnance.
Vieques closed after receiving numerous protests from local residents, especially after a civilian employee, David Sanes Rodriguez was killed April 19, 1999, when military ordnance was dropped too close to his security post. According to a Congressional research report, a Marine Corps F-18 dropped two 500-pound bombs striking the security post killing Rodriguez and injuring four others. The F-18 was on a training mission when the incident occurred. The Congressional report states the ordnance was dropped "within the overall range perimeter."
After this incident the range was temporarily closed.
President Clinton asked Secretary of Defense William Cohen to establish a special panel to study the situation. The four-member panel was chaired by Frank Rush, the then-acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for force management policy, and is consequently sometimes called the Rush panel. The panel released its report on October 19, 1999. The report recommended, among other things, that DoN
The "Navy–Vieques protests" is the name given by the English-speaking media to a series of protests starting in 1999 on the Puerto Rican island-municipality of Vieques. The protesters were against the use of the island by the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps for bombing target practice. The protests led to the U.S. military ending the use of its facilities on the island.
In 1999, the death of Rodriguez triggered the protests. After his death, a wave of protests followed, and resulted in a promise, made by then U.S. President Clinton and reiterated by his successor George W. Bush, that the Navy would leave Vieques by May 2003.
A few months later, small wooden structures were erected inside the practice grounds, and encampments from all over the island-municipality started to attract attention.
By that time, the protests had also started to gain international attention, and people from all over the world joined the struggle. Many celebrities, including the political leader Ruben Berrios, singers Danny Rivera, Robi Draco Rosa and Ricky Martin, boxer Félix "Tito" Trinidad, writers Ana Lydia Vega and Giannina Braschi, American actor Edward James Olmos and Guatemala's Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú supported the cause, as did Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Al Sharpton, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Pope John Paul II once said that he wanted peace for Vieques. The Archbishop of San Juan, Roberto González Nieves, was heavily involved in the protests that took place in the municipality. He managed to put together a coalition of different Puerto Rican church leaders that gathered international attention. Olmos, Sharpton and Kennedy also served jail time; while serving his prison term in Puerto Rico, Kennedy's wife Mary gave birth to the couple's sixth child, a son they named Aidan Caohman Vieques Kennedy.
The Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (MST) held a series of incursions into the bombing ranges to halt the bombing without being arrested, and a few of them were successful in that second objective.
Massive occupation of practice range
Five days later, in an internationally covered event, hundreds of protesters and supporters from all over the world and with different ideologies, penetrated the military practice grounds. Natives of Vieques, many Puerto Ricans, Hollywood celebrities, priests, pastors, friars, athletes, and politicians (including U.S. Representatives Luis Gutiérrez and Nydia Velázquez) were among them. The incursion had been well publicized and resulted in the arrest of the protesters by Marshals, as both sides of the struggle wanted to avoid brushes with the military.
With non-violence as the main objective of the protests, the protesters behaved in a peaceful manner upon their arrest, shouting "Paz para Vieques" ("Peace for Vieques"). Others sang themes related to peace or religion. A few had to be removed by force but didn't offer physical resistance or insult the officials. Many protesters were set free a few hours after being jailed, others were released a few days later. Only a few had sentences imposed that lasted between one and six months. The official charge was trespassing on U.S. military territory.
Incursions continue, protests come to an end
With the continuation of bombing practices by the U.S. Navy, incursions to the practice grounds continued, until an official announcement by the U.S. government stating that the military would be leaving the island in May 2003.
On March 31, 2004, the United States closed its Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on mainland Puerto Rico. A skeleton staff of 200, down from approximately 1,200 civilian and 700 military personnel, stayed on at the facility until the transfer of the property was completed. The closure of the base at Roosevelt Roads resulted in a substantial financial loss to the economy of Puerto Rico that the Navy estimates at $250 million a year. Admiral Robert J. Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, is on record as saying: "Without Vieques there is no way I need the Navy facilities at Roosevelt Roads — none. It's a drain on Defense Department and taxpayer dollars."
Nevertheless, the government of Puerto Rico has announced that the airport at the base will be reopened, and will become a major Caribbean air cargo hub, relieving Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport and extending its useful life indefinitely without the need for property expansion. It will also be used to centralize general aviation activities now dispersed over several municipal airports, saving the Puerto Rico Ports Authority significant sums of money on maintenance and other costs. Other plans are in motion to make use of other sections of the former base to benefit the local economy. A large portion of the undeveloped land in the property is being set aside for ecological preservation.
On April 30, 2003 many supporters of the Cause of Vieques traveled to the island-municipality to hold a celebration inside the past bombing practice grounds. The event was recorded by national TV news. On May 1, 2003, the crowd entered the former bombing range en masse. Their celebration turned aggressive, in contrast to the peaceful protests held by some of them a few months earlier.
The Police Task force of Puerto Rico was mobilized from the main island, as were the Police of Vieques, and other previously mobilized law enforcement officials, who were unprepared for the now-violent celebration.
The president of the Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico, and a leader of the cause, was recorded by TV cameras engaging in violent and destructive behavior. The crowd destroyed a former Navy guard-house and military trucks with drop hammers.
Those indicted said that their behavior was caused by the resentment and bitterness that had accumulated from the decades of suffering due to the Navy's bombing practices on the island. Norma Burgos, a Senator of Puerto Rico, who had formerly been imprisoned for trespassing on the bombing range several months earlier, justified the behavior by comparing it to the fall of Saddam Hussein's statue in the recent invasion of Iraq — in which U.S. soldiers used an Army tank (a property of the U.S. government) to tear it down. Their defense failed, and more than a dozen of those charged were imprisoned for “damages and destruction of public property.”
In 2001, the United States Navy left western Vieques, which had been used as an ammunition depot. Now the United States Fish and Wildlife Service controls 3,100 acres (13 km²) of this land — about half of the formerly owned military property. Over the course of U.S. Navy occupancy, nearly 22 million pounds (10,000 tonnes) of military and industrial waste, such as oils, solvents, lubricants, lead paint, acid and 55 US gallon (200 L) drums, were deposited on the western portion of the island. As cited by McCaffrey, according to the Universidad Metropolitana, the extent of leaching is unknown. In 2005 the Navy was investigating 17 potentially contaminated sites.
On May 1, 2003 the Navy finished turning over all of its lands to the U.S. Department of the Interior. This included the Navy’s entire eastern portion of the island — 14,573 acres (58.97 km²) — which was mainly used as a dumping ground. McCaffrey cites data from the U.S. Navy:
Vieques was bombed an average of 180 days per year. In 1998, the last year before protests interrupted maneuvers, the Navy dropped 23,000 bombs on the island, the majority of which contained explosives.
The live impact range, which is the most contaminated zone, was given the highest protected environmental status — that of a “wilderness preserve.” The Fish and Wildlife Service boasts that Vieques Wildlife Refuge is an ecologically diverse Caribbean wildlife refuge. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) has declared the refuge a superfund site. Much of the lands are now termed wildlife refuges, meaning that humans are not allowed on the land, therefore allowing the Navy to avoid cleanup. Whether or not the U.S. made the land a wildlife refuge strictly to avoid cleaning up the island is still debated.
Contamination and health effects
A survey by the Puerto Rico Health Department revealed that the cancer rate in Vieques is 27% higher than mainland Puerto Rico. In a federal lawsuit, Vieques’ environmental groups and residents accused the Navy of causing “more damage than any other single actor in the history of Puerto Rico”. The prosecutors claimed that the Navy’s activities contaminated much of the eastern portion of the island with a wide range of toxic substances. As cited by Franciscans International, according to the Navy’s figures, throughout the course of six decades about 5 million pounds (2,000 t) of ordnance was dropped on Vieques every year. Ordnance included toxic compounds and elements such as arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, depleted uranium and napalm, and tons of a fiberglass-like substance. Most of these toxins are persistent, meaning that they bioaccumulate.
For decades environmentalists have complained that contaminants from naval exercises have spread to other parts of the island though the air, water, and soil. The people of Vieques live downwind from where the bombing was done; thus toxins that can be airborne — such as DU — could easily come in contact with civilians. Representative Charles Rangel, (United States Democratic Party, New York, investigated contamination in Vieques and discovered that
“A number of studies conducted by well-qualified scientists from universities in the United States and in Puerto Rico reveal that there is a high probability that the compounds released by the Navy exercises and chemical testing created toxic levels in the environment and could be the cause of serious medical conditions affecting the people of Vieques.”.
A newspaper article reported that a study by the Puerto Rico Health Department cited high levels of heavy metals in plants, animals and humans; however, no study reports are available. In the 980 acre (4 km²) live impact range on the eastern tip of island, studies have shown that the ground water is contaminated by nitrates and explosives. Furthermore, unexploded weapons, ordnance, and sunken barges litter the floor of the Caribbean Sea. Testing done in the Icacos Lagoon showed concentrations of cadmium in crabs to be 1,000 times higher than the World Health Organization's “tolerable ingestion maximum dosage.” Furthermore, toxic levels of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, selenium, mercury and zinc, have been found in several species of fish. In the lawsuit conducted by environmentalists and the people of Vieques against the Navy, the prosecutors noted that most residents of Vieques use many of these same species of fish as a source of food. Cadmium and arsenic are carcinogenic. One study from 1999 that tested hair samples from various age groups of Vieques residents revealed that 69% were contaminated with cadmium and arsenic, and 34% had toxic levels of mercury.
Biologist Arturo Massol and radiochemist Elba Díaz conducted an unpublished study in January 2001 that showed vegetables and plants growing in the civilian area of Vieques were highly contaminated with heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and copper. Furthermore, they discovered that metal concentrations in edible crops were both substantially above the maximum levels set by the European Union Council and much higher than plants tested in mainland Puerto Rico. Chiles, pasture grasses, and squashes were more effected than plants with deeper root systems such as trees. This is consistent with the theory that heavy metals travel by air to civilian areas via the steady easterly trade winds that blow directly from the bombing zone .
High levels of heavy metals appear to be causing increased cancer and infant mortality rates, and childhood asthma. Mercury affects the brain, cardiovascular system, kidneys and the developing fetus. A newspaper article claims that there is a study by the Puerto Rico Health Department linked abnormally high levels of asthma in children to mercury contamination. In 2004 the infant mortality rate in Vieques was 55% higher than the other 77 municipalities in Puerto Rico—a rate of almost 20 per 1000 live births as opposed to 12.8.
In addition to the toxic materials that the Navy had been dropping on Vieques since the 1940s, in 1999 the Navy “accidentally” fired depleted uranium bullets ("DU"). The Navy admitted to firing just 263 rounds of depleted uranium bullets. Based on a report by RAND, a research corporation, the U.S. Department of Defense claims DU doesn’t compromise human health. However, Dan Fahey, the Director of Research at the Gulf War Resource Center, points out that the RAND report was incomplete: it ignored 68 relevant sources that show clear relationships between DU and harm to human health.
Nuclear target ship
Wreckage of the USS Killen (DD593), WWII Fletcher Class Destroyer : The veteran destroyer served as a target ship during the atom bomb tests in 1958 (Operation Hardtack I, shots WAHOO and UMBRELLA), and in 1962 engaged in high explosive tests in the Chesapeake Bay to assess the structural effects of the ship's nuclear exposures. Killen was struck from the Navy List and sent to the US Naval Station at Roosevelt Roads, P.R. in January 1963 to be used as a target ship for missile and gunnery practice off the nearby Puerto Rican island of Vieques where she was eventually sunk/scuttled in a shallow bay in 1975 and still lies today.
The US Navy seemed to have lost track of the ship's nuclear past and of the wreck site. A sizable portion of the ship's stern is removed by a distance of 787 feet (240 m) across the bay and its identity was forgotten until 2002. The Navy also seems not to have been aware as of 2000 that the wreckage present on the bay floor is absent all structures from its main deck including nearly all the main decking itself (it was essentially a shell of a ship without a lid when it sank). Thousands of tons of the original irradiated steel of the ship has been missing for at least 35 years and likely longer. That irradiated steel is still unaccounted for by the US Navy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Studies and site visits made in 1999 by a Puerto Rican marine archaeologist and the University of Georgia discovered nearly two hundred steel barrels of unknown origin and contents among the wreckage of the Killen. Based on government descriptions of the nuclear tests in the Pacific, some scientists and Vieques environmental activists have been concerned that nuclear-fallout cleaning materials were likely stored inside those barrels and improperly disposed, possibly entering the local environment prior to sinking or exposing contaminants to the animals and habitat of Bahia Salina del Sur in Vieques after sinking. As of today the origin and contents of those barrels are still unknown.
In 2003, a team from the University of Georgia conducted radiological and toxicological tests of the wreckage. Using underwater detection equipment, they found that as of 2003 the metal at the wreck site did not present elevated radiological signatures of the ship's hull or interior components; everything else from the main deck and up is missing. Their report however failed to address a time-line of potential radiological hazard from the wreckage during its time in Puerto Rico (since 1963) or while lying as wreckage on the bay floor (since 1975). Also missing from the report was an assessment or mention of the potential radiological hazard from the thousands of tons of irradiated steel missing from the wreck site. The report discusses testing the interiors of the steel barrels at the wreck site but only four intact barrels and five 'open' ones were probed with a siphon-extraction tube. However, these nine (out of the several hundred barrels) were all located on a remote part of the wreckage separated by 787 ft from the main wreck site which contains the bulk of the barrels. This sampling flaw leaves the goodness of the report's conclusion in question. The origin of the barrels was never verified. Also, equipment described seen among the pile of barrels matches that of equipment scattered at different locations around the same bay raising questions about their source and time of deposition. The report did, however, raise concerns about possible contamination from ordnance at the site.
It has been asserted that the noise created by the Navy’s testing appears to have negatively affected the health of civilians living on Vieques. In a study conducted for Puerto Rican Governor Calderon, 48 of the 50 Vieques residents tested were diagnosed as suffering from vibroacoustic disease — a thickening of heart tissue caused by exposure to sonic booms. Simultaneously, the Ponce School of Medicine conducted an independent study and found other data to confirm the presence of vibroacoustic disease: 79% of Viequenses fishermen have thickened heart tissue, which is the main symptom of vibroacoustic disease. This disease is said to lead to heart arrhythmia, or even death.
However, this claim was brought into question after review by an expert panel. This panel, composed of cardiologists and epidemiologists of international stature, half from the countries of Mexico and Spain and half from the U.S. mainland, reviewed the study done at Ponce School of Medicine (PSM). The tapes of echocardiograms, by which measurements of pericardial thicknesses had been made, were blind-coded at PSM and sent to Dr. Jae K. Oh, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. As one of the most highly regarded echocardiographers in the world, Dr Oh was selected to repeat the measurements. Without knowledge of whether study subjects were from Vieques or from the control group, Dr. Oh repeated the echocardiographic measurements done at PSM. After his work was complete, both Oh's findings and the key to the blinding code were made available to interested scientists. When statistical analyses were repeated using Oh's measurements, there was no statistically significant difference between the Vieques and control groups. The expert panel concluded that "there is no evidence from the Vieques Heart Study to indicate a clinically significant heart disease." 
Health risk speculation
Live explosives and gunfire were only used on a small portion of the island—the live impact area, which is located over eight miles from the nearest town. Although areas that were used decades ago for burning expired ammunition take up less than 300 acres (1.2 km²) and thus likely do not pose a serious health risk, the Navy has agreed to clean up the sites according to EPA standards. Furthermore, no civilians were ever hit by Navy fire. At a press conference in 2001 the Honorable Robert B. Pirie, Under Secretary of the Navy, said that: “Our training poses no danger and little burden to Viequenses and is absolutely vital to our national security.”.
Since most of the studies linking the Navy’s actions to the decline of public health were done by researchers affiliated with the Puerto Rico Independence Party, Pirie claimed that “none of the health-related allegations made have stood-up to credible scientific scrutiny or universally accepted legal standards”. Pirie also cited the National Cancer Institute, which said that cancer rates in many major U.S. cities are actually higher than the cancer rates in Vieques. According to Dr. Carmen Feliciano, figures drawn from her data about an increased infant mortality rate in Vieques are misleading. The group that used her information omitted a range of data. When that data was factored in the infant mortality rate was actually lower than that in the rest of Puerto Rico. On behalf of the Navy, Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health conducted a $46,000 review of the study on vibroacoustic disease done by the Vieques government. In April 2001 the university reported that there was no evidence to conclude that vibroacoustic disease symptoms on Vieques were due to noise from Navy exercises. Furthermore, the report suggested that vibroacoustic disease may not actually exist.
There are three different media through which humans can come in contact with hazardous materials: air, water, and soil. The United States Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (“ATSDR”) tested water, air, and soil quality in order to determine whether the health of the Viequenses were at risk. In all cases the ATSDR found that either the Navy had not affected the environment or that the Navy had affected it so minimally that the contamination would pose no threat to human health. However, other scientists contend that ATSDR’s studies were incomplete. The ATSDR is notorious for denying links between community contamination and health affects. After monitoring the ATSDR for ten years, Linda King of the Environmental Health Network reported that only one ATSDR study among hundreds has found contaminants in the community to be the cause of health problems .
Fish and shellfish pathway
After conducting tests on fish and shellfish, the ATSDR determined that it is safe to eat seafood from all waters and coastal lands around the island of Vieques. Even though several metals were detected in the local seafood, ATSDR concluded that the metals would not pose a health risk even if a person ate fish and shellfish every day for 70 years. No explosives were detected in the edible fish and shellfish that were tested.
The ATSDR acknowledges that Navy training has elevated the levels of some metals in the soil of the former Live Impact Area, but holds that the levels are too low to harm humans. Making contact with any of the soil on Vieques would not cause adverse health effects.
The ATSDR found that the air does not contain dangerous levels of chemicals. Since the Live Impact Area is over eight miles from residential areas, airborne dust and contaminants from training activities disperse to harmlessly low levels before coming in contact with civilians.
After testing the groundwater, the ATSDR determined that Naval training and testing has in no way affected the drinking water on Vieques. First of all, most of the island’s drinking water comes through an underwater pipeline from mainland Puerto Rico. Secondly, groundwater from the former Live Impact Area cannot leach into wells due to geological barriers. High levels of nitrates in some wells are due to local, most likely agricultural, sources. It is not safe for children and pregnant women to drink water from these few contaminated wells.
ATSDR studies contested
The ATSDR avoided drawing links between the Navy training and health concerns on Vieques. For example, the agency neglected to test several relevant wells, including the Sun Bay Wells, which serve as the backup water supply for Vieques in case the pipeline from mainland Puerto Rico breaks down. Furthermore, the Navy’s claim that groundwater from the testing site cannot reach residential groundwater supplies may be false. At a public meeting, when asked why the Navy had installed monitoring wells designed to track the spread of explosive contaminants between the impact area and the civilian area, the ATSDR refused to comment. Also, the ATSDR did not adequately emphasize negative findings in their report. For instance, high levels of benzene—more than four times the maximum allowed—were found in a groundwater well on the Navy’s property.
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- Promise by President Bill Clinton that Navy would leave Vieques
- Chicago Tribune - Chicago, Ill, May 7, 2000
- Puertorico-Herald, July 23, 2001
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- Operation Hardtack I 1958. Defense Nuclear Agency. 1982. DNA6038F. http://www.dtra.mil/rd/programs/nuclear_personnel/docs/DNA6038F.pdf[dead link]
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- Personal communication with EPA; CDC refuses to comment
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