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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Battle Over Puerto Rico Bombing Range

Air Date: Week of

Leda Hartman reports from Vieques (vee-EH-kuhs), Puerto Rico, on the protests against the U.S. Navy’s continued use of the island for a practice bombing range. Protesters are occupying the bombing range and demanding that the military leave the island, citing damage to both the environment and human health.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Just off Puerto Rico there's a small island about the size of Martha's Vineyard named Vieques. In many respects it's like the old Caribbean, with wild horses, lots of open space, and miles of spectacular and uninhabited beaches. Few people live there because the west end of the island is a massive ammunition depot for the United States Navy, and the eastern end is used for military maneuvers, including land, sea and air assaults. A half-century of almost constant bombing has sparked protests by local residents. Last April a bomb went astray, killing a civilian guard and reinvigorating the protests, which also have an anti-colonial flavor. The head of the Puerto Rican Independence Party has been camping out on the bombing range, and more than 80,000 people recently demonstrated on the streets of San Juan. There have been no war games since the guard was killed, but Puerto Rico's governor, Pedro Rosello, and President Clinton recently agreed the maneuvers would resume with dummy bombs. The deal would also let the island's residents vote on the future of the area. Leda Hartman has our report.


HARTMAN: Vieques is a Caribbean jewel, home to rare tropical birds, a plethora of fish, coral reefs and mangrove trees. But the island's star feature, says Richard Barone, a nature guide, is its bioluminescent bay, filled with microorganisms that glow in the dark.

BARONE: On a slightly windy night, the little wave chops all light up. Any fish that take off, they light up like rockets going off. It's unforgettable, it's incredible, it's for almost everybody somehow a spiritually moving experience to see it. It makes you love it.

HARTMAN: As Mr. Barone speaks, the sun sinks lower over Puerto Real, the southernmost town on Vieques. Streaks of gold, turquoise, and magenta appear over the white sandy beach of Sun Bay and the distant green hills of Pirate Mountain.

BARONE: If this doesn't inspire you, forget it, you're dead, you're totally, totally dead, you don't even deserve to be in your body.

HARTMAN: Mr. Barone himself embodies the island's history. His father was American, a Navy man. His mother was a native islander whose family lost their land through eminent domain when the Navy took hold of two-thirds of Vieques during World War II. For almost 60 years the military has conducted training exercises on the island's eastern shore from the air, land and sea. The Navy says this is the only place in the Atlantic where these crucial, three-pronged war games can be carried out. But last April, the long-simmering resentment of many Viequenses toward the Navy came to a full boil when a bomb went astray and killed a civilian guard.

(Music, clapping and singing)

HARTMAN: Since then, hundreds of people have illegally occupied the bombing range and have also come to the front gates of the Navy base to stage a nonstop protest.

(Music continues)

HARTMAN: Danny Rivera, one of Puerto Rico's most popular singers, is a regular visitor. He says the Navy hasn't been a good neighbor.

RIVERA: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: No neighbor that disturbs the peace, the health, the spiritual and psychological well-being of our community, is a good neighbor.

HARTMAN: Worries about the island's ecological well-being are what bring 38-year-old Carlos Ventura here. Mr. Ventura's family has been fishing for generations, and he heads the local fisherman's union. He says the bombing exercises have upset the food chain and disturbed the fish habitat.

VENTURA: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: All of these military activities affect the species. In some cases, it's the noise. In others, it's the direct effect of the bombs on the habitat and on the species. Because on many occasions, when the bombs fall in the water, you see fish of all kinds leaving the area.

HARTMAN: In recent years, Mr. Ventura adds, he has had to go farther and farther out to find fish. What's more, he says, he has seen unusual numbers of dead fish. Some of these have inflamed lungs. Other sea creatures, he says, have mutations.

VENTURA: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: For example, we found crabs that, instead of having two mouths, have three mouths. We found other species of fish that don't have the colors they are supposed to have. And we found lobsters that should have four antennas, but instead they have eight.

HARTMAN: The Navy claims to have no knowledge of these deformities. Isabel Segunda is the capital of Vieques, a town of faded colonial elegance where Dr. Rafael Rivera-Castano was born and raised. Dr. Rivera is a retired epidemiologist from the University of Puerto Rico. Sitting on his front porch, he explains that he came back to Vieques to live out the rest of his life.

RIVERA: At my age, whatever I am going to die from, my cancer is already in progress. So, if I come back or not come back, I'm going to die anyway. So I don't have to. If I had any children I wouldn't have come here.

HARTMAN: That's because cancer rates on Vieques may be unusually high. A review of cancer statistics spanning 35 years by the Puerto Rican Health Department shows cancer rates on Vieques to be an average of 27 percent higher than those on the Puerto Rican mainland. That average is higher still from 1985 to 1994, the most recent period studied. These results were confirmed by epidemiologists at the University of Puerto Rico, and Dr. Rivera says there's only one way to account for the numbers.

RIVERA: In the 60s, the cancer rate in Vieques was lower than Puerto Rico, actually was going down from 1960 to 1974. It is in 1974 that it started rising. So it's reasonable to think that this is the effect of the bombing in Vieques.

HARTMAN: Dr. Rivera cites another recent study by the University of Puerto Rico, which has found unusually high levels of skin allergies and pulmonary problems in children who live closest to the bombing range. He says soil samples taken by protesters on the range show elevated levels of toxic substances, including lead, cadmium, mercury, and nitrites, some of which are carcinogenic. All are residue of the bombing.

RIVERA: They're there in the bombing area. There's no reason to believe that this is not coming to the civilian population. The wind blows form the camp area into the town to the west. There's no reason to believe we are not breathing all these things that are going there.

HARTMAN: Dr. Rivera believes some parts of the bombing range, particularly the eastern tip, may be too contaminated to ever clean up. The pollution on Vieques will soon get some attention from the federal government. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, based in Atlanta, will test the soil and the sea water around Vieques. The ATSDR also wants to test the air to determine where the debris from the bombing goes, but it can't do that until the Navy uses live bombs again -- something that's on hold for the foreseeable future. The study's preliminary results are due out this summer, and Rear Admiral Andrew Granuzzo is looking forward to them. As the Navy's Director of Environmental Protection, Safety and Occupational Health, Granuzzo says he expects the ATSDR to validate his contention that the bombing has had no adverse effects on the island.

GRANUZZO:We think that Vieques is as unique and beautiful as it is today because of our stewardship.

HARTMAN: Admiral Granuzzo adds that the bombing range comprises only three percent of the island, and is separated from populated areas by a buffer zone of at least eight miles -- too far away, he says, to receive any contamination. He says the wind blows from the bombing range toward the towns less than half the time, and breaks up any pollutants into quantities too small to hurt anyone.

GRANUZZO: I would also say that we've tested the water in the wells, and we've tested the air, and we can find no evidence of any carcinogens that could have been caused from Navy activities.

HARTMAN: One known human carcinogen, however, has been used on Vieques. In February of last year, the Navy mistakenly and illegally fired 263 rounds of depleted uranium bullets at the bombing range. That's not the same as dropping a nuclear bomb, but the material is still radioactive. Admiral Granuzzo says this was an isolated case of human error.

GRANUZZO:We went out to the island and started the clean-up, and we suspended the clean-up because a lot of the rounds went into heavy vegetation where there was a risk of unexploded ordnance. And we were going to wait until we could clear that vegetation and then go back in again. Subsequent to that, the trespassers came on the range and have been camped out there since. And we haven't had a chance to go back.


HARTMAN: The trespassers get to the Navy's bombing range by talking an hour-long boat ride around the island's coast, to arrive at its eastern shore.

(Men speak with each other)

HARTMAN: Despite the lack of amenities, the protesters have managed to settle in comfortably. One camp even has a solar collector, a wind turbine, and a nursery for seedlings. Alejandro Torres, an activist with the Puerto Rican Independence Party, explains why he and hundreds of others have camped here, on and off, since last April.

TORRES: For people here, it's a guarantee, like a human shield, to prevent the Navy from bombing the area.

HARTMAN: Mr. Torres says that before the Navy came, the bombing range was farm land, mostly sugar cane fields. Now it's pockmarked and cratered, littered with shot-up tanks and aircraft, and ordnance, some of which is still unexploded.

TORRES: Look, that's all the bombs.

HARTMAN: That blue thing with the little tail at the end.

TORRES: Yeah, it's like a fish.

HARTMAN: Yet amid the barrenness, the land is reviving: a result, Mr. Torres says, of staving off the bombing since last April.

TORRES: Now you see the grass, and many young-born trees. Before that, this was like a desert.

HARTMAN: Even some animals have started to return.

TORRES: This lagoon -- seven months ago it was empty. Look, the ducks, look, the ducks. Mira los patos alli, los patos alli. A new life.

HARTMAN: Despite these signs, the protesters on the bombing range are unhappy about one thing. The Clinton Administration agreement allows the Navy to resume its bombing exercises for three years, till May 2003, albeit with dummy bombs filled with concrete. Independence Party President Ruben Berrios has been living at the range since last May. He says he'll stay until the Navy leaves or he's arrested, something neither the Puerto Rican government nor federal authorities seem anxious to do, so far.

BERRIOS: Vieques is imperative, it's the priority of every Puerto Rican that feels proud of being a Puerto Rican. This is the priority, and all my energies are going to be dedicated to this.

HARTMAN: The ultimate fate of the Navy, however, will rest with the people of Vieques. The White House order provides for a referendum which gives the Viequenses a choice: to either accept a $90 million aid package and let the Navy resume live bombing, or to kick the military out entirely. Rear Admiral Andrew Granuzzo acknowledges the Navy has a challenge ahead.

GRANUZZO:We have to be good neighbors with the people of Vieques. We want to re-engage them and try to demonstrate to them that we are good neighbors. That's what we're going to have to do during this period.

HARTMAN: Still, Admiral Granuzzo says the Navy has not only been a good neighbor, it has also been a good caretaker. He points to the pristine beaches the Navy maintains, its thriving pelican rookery, its efforts against erosion in the mangrove swamps, and its well-kept turtle hatchery.

GRANUZZO:In fact, in a "Conde Nast Traveler" magazine last April, the article is quoted as saying that Vieques has benefitted from Uncle Sam's restraint.


HARTMAN: Meanwhile, back at the beach at Puerto Real, nature guide Richard Barone says he knows how the island itself would vote if it could.

BARONE: This island was incredible 150 years ago. Incredible. It was rainforest from one end to the other. It had colonies of flamingos. There were Puerto Rican parrots from one end of this island to the other. There was so much animal life on this island. And do you think this island that loves life so much doesn't have any memory of that?

HARTMAN: The people of Vieques are scheduled to vote on the Navy's fate in May of next year. For Living on Earth, I'm Leda Hartman in Vieques, Puerto Rico.



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