There was always a disconnect between the serene beauty of the island of Vieques and the stunning violence of the bombardment that would pound parts of the island when the Navy practiced its combat maneuvers.
The eruptions — the ear-splitting bombing and ship-to-shore shelling — would occur both in the daytime and at night. The maneuvers, complete with low-flying planes and helicopters, would take place a few miles from inhabited areas, but they were profoundly disruptive nevertheless. War games that were close enough to make school buildings tremble were also close enough to fill students with a sense of unease, if not dread.
There is something very strange about the U.S. military waging mock warfare for more than half a century on a small island inhabited by United States citizens. In October 1993 a plane accidentally dropped five quarter-ton bombs just a mile from Isabel Segunda, the island's largest town. Four of the bombs exploded, but no one was hurt. Two years ago a civilian guard was killed when two bombs missed their target and destroyed an observation post.
Such incidents were nerve-racking, to say the least, and have angered local residents. But Vieques, we were told, perfectly suited the Navy's purposes.
No doubt. Most of the 9,000 or so people on the island were dreadfully poor. Nearly three-quarters were below the official poverty line. These were folks the Navy could push around. If we were talking about an island of fat cats, the surf and the turf of 9,000 wealthy and well-educated Americans, do we think the Navy could have gotten away with the argument that there was no other place anywhere that was suitable for these war games?
President Bush has ordered the Navy to clear out of Vieques over the next two years. But that's not enough. Someone has to address the incredible mess the Navy will be leaving behind.
Six decades of bombing and shelling and other efforts to perfect the Navy's destructive capacity have done lasting damage to the health of Vieques residents and the physical environment of the island. A federal lawsuit brought by environmental groups and residents of Vieques accuses the Navy of causing "more damage than any other single actor in the history of Puerto Rico."
The suit alleges that much of the eastern portion of the island, where the training exercises take place, has been contaminated with a wide range of toxic substances that resulted from bombs, other explosive devices, and the use of such materials as Agent Orange, napalm and, in at least one instance, depleted uranium.
A report to the governor of Puerto Rico two years ago quoted one man as saying, "The people of Vieques have been breathing and drinking explosives for the last 50 years."
Environmentalists have long complained that the contaminants produced by the naval exercises have spread though the air, the water and the constantly exploding soil to other parts of the island. Toxic levels of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, selenium, mercury and zinc, have been found in several species of fish.
The lawsuit noted that local residents "use many of these same species of fish as a source of food."
Puerto Rican officials have said that Vieques has the highest rate of cancer, the highest infant mortality rate and the highest overall mortality rate of any municipality in the commonwealth. And, according to one government study, a large number of the island's residents suffer from a rare heart disorder associated with exposure to sonic booms.
As the Navy prepares to leave Vieques, the federal government has an obligation to determine the effect it has had on the public's health and the environment.
"I do believe that people on that island are sicker because of the naval bombardment," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of the Waterkeeper Alliance and lead counsel of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Both groups are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Mr. Kennedy noted that Vieques had been a pristine island that was kissed daily by the trade winds of the Caribbean. There is no industry on the island. To the extent that its environment has been soiled and the health of its residents endangered, the Navy is responsible.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company