Published on
The New York Times

New Battle on Vieques, Over Navy’s Cleanup of Munitions

Miyero Navarro

A woman walks on La Esperanza, above, a beach in Vieques, P.R. The Navy is cleaning the area, which was once a training ground. (Environmental Protection Agency)

VIEQUES, P.R. — The United States Navy ceased military training
operations on this small island in 2003, and windows no longer rattle
from the shelling from ships and air-to-ground bombings.

Gone are the protests that drew celebrities like Benicio Del Toro and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Real estate prices and tourism have boomed: a 157-room Starwood W hotel
is expected to open by December on the island, which is seven miles
east of Puerto Rico’s mainland.

But Vieques, once the largest training area for the United States Atlantic Fleet Forces, is still largely defined by its old struggles. Once again, residents have squared off against the American military.

The Navy has begun removing
hazardous unexploded munitions from its old training ground by
detonating them in the open air. It also proposes to burn through
nearly 100 acres of dense tropical vegetation to locate and explode
highly sensitive cluster bombs.

But what could have been a healing process has been marred by
lingering mistrust. As the Navy moves to erase a bitter vestige of its
long presence here, residents assert that it is simply exposing them
again to risk.

“The great majority of emergency room visits here last year were for
respiratory problems,” said Evelyn Delerme Camacho, the mayor of
Vieques. “Can they guarantee that contaminants or smoke won’t reach the
population? Would we have to wait and see if there’s a problem?”

The cleanup comes as the local Vieques government and most of the
island’s 9,300 residents pursue claims against the United States
government for contamination and for illnesses that they assert are
linked to pollutants released during decades of live-fire and bombing
exercises beginning in World War II.

Given the history of grievances, many locals are aghast that the
Navy’s methods involve burnings and detonations whose booms can be
heard in some residential areas, setting people on edge. They have
spoken out at public hearings and in legislative resolutions.

But Christopher T. Penny, head of the Navy’s Vieques restoration
program, said the unexploded bombs are too powerful to be set off in
detonation chambers. And he said that experiments to cut through the
dense vegetation with a remote-control device had not had much success.

Environmental Protection Agency
officials who are overseeing the project say that such on-site
detonations are typical of cleanups at former military training ranges.
Jose C. Font, an E.P.A. deputy director in San Juan, says they pose no
threat to human health as long as limited amounts are exploded each
time, the wind is calm and air quality is monitored constantly.

In 2005 the training ground was designated a federal Superfund site, giving the E.P.A. the authority to order a cleanup led by the party responsible for the pollution.

The unexploded munitions lie on 8,900 acres of former Navy land on
the eastern end of the island, including 1,100 acres of what was once
the live impact area. The E.P.A. says the cleanup could take 10 years
or more.

Workers are using historical records, aerial photography and
high-power metal detectors to locate the munitions before cutting
through the foliage and detonating them. So far, the Navy says, it has
identified 18,700 munitions and explosives and blown up about a third
of those.

The E.P.A. says that the hazardous substances associated with
ordnance that may be present in Vieques include TNT, napalm, depleted
uranium, mercury, lead and other chemicals, including PCBs.

Residents’ concerns about the cleanup are heightened by suspicions
of a link between the contaminants and what Puerto Rico’s health
department found were disproportionately high rates of illnesses like
cancer, hypertension and liver disease on the island.

In 2003, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease
Registry, which assesses health hazards at Superfund sites, concluded
that levels of heavy metals and explosive compounds found in Vieques’s
soil, groundwater, air and fish did not pose a health risk.

But this year the registry agency said it would “rigorously” revisit
its 2003 finding, and its director, Dr. Howard Frumkin, plans to visit
Vieques on Wednesday to meet with residents.

Puerto Rico’s legislature, meanwhile, has asked President Obama
to keep a campaign promise to “achieve an environmentally acceptable
cleanup” and “closely monitor the health of the people of Vieques and
promote appropriate remedies.”

Most contested here is a Navy request to the E.P.A. and the
Environmental Quality Board in Puerto Rico to allow the controlled burn
to clear vegetation and find bombs. The risk of accidental explosions,
the Navy says, is too high for workers to do it by hand using
chainsaws, machetes and trimmers.

“The issue is safety,” said Mr. Penny of the Navy. Many residents
complain that they have not received enough information to feel
reassured. Among them are a group that gathers on most evenings in a
plaza of sand-colored buildings anchored by the church in Isabel
Segunda, Vieques’s main town.

“We hear they are taking out bombs, but we haven’t been informed of
what exactly is coming out of there and whether there’s more
contamination when they get it out,” said Julio Serrano, 57, who works
at the airport as an operations supervisor. “We need to be told clearly
what’s in there.”

Yet some experts on military cleanups suggest that, rather than
focusing on any short-term air quality problems, residents might
consider the possibility of an accidental explosion that is years away.

“The real risk is that there’s no technology available that would
guarantee that they’ve removed every piece of ordnance,” said
Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, an assistant professor of environmental
sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina
in Chapel Hill who has studied the risks of adapting former training
ranges. “There’s no way to make that land safe for reuse unless it’s
very restrictive.”

Other battles loom. Most of the 26,000 acres the Navy used to own on
the eastern and western ends of Vieques — making up about three-fourths
of the island — have been turned over to the Department of the Interior, which plans to maintain the land as a wildlife preserve.

The Fish and Wildlife Service
has already opened up small portions of the area to the public as a
wildlife refuge that includes gorgeous undeveloped beaches where sea
turtles like the loggerhead and hawksbill nest.

But Mayor Delerme Camacho said that once the cleanup is over,
Vieques’s residents want to be able to use the land for housing and
ecotourism, too. Already, those eager to build have staked out
makeshift claims with signs on trees within a chunk of 4,000 acres
transferred by the Navy to the municipal government.

Though fishermen can now catch red snapper and yellowtail
unfettered by the Navy’s target practice, and visitors have discovered
the rural charms of a place where horses roam freely on the roads,
Vieques still has high rates of poverty and lacks a full-fledged

Ismael Guadalupe, 65, a retired teacher and leader in the long
resistance to the Navy’s operations here, said that while the training
is over, the fighting continues. “As one of our sayings goes, ‘If we
had to eat the bone, now we should be able to eat the meat,’ ” he said.

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