2003 CPEO Military List Archive

From: CPEO Moderator <cpeo@cpeo.org>
Date: 23 Dec 2003 18:49:29 -0000
Reply: cpeo-military
Subject: [CPEO-MEF] Vieques Aftermath
Puerto Rico
Vieques Aftermath
by Kate M. Levin
Posted December 22, 2003

A recent issue of National Geographic Traveler featured a list of its
Top Five Caribbean hot spots for the year. Number one is Cuba, the
perfect destination if you love those "faded Commie icons," as the
magazine put it. Their second favorite is the Puerto Rican
island-municipality of Vieques, which was, until recently, a
bomb-testing zone for the US Navy.

Last month, two tourists, perhaps acting on a tip from the glossy mag's
feature, visited a Vieques beach. They found, in addition to the
stunning natural beauty they'd been promised, something unexpected: a
small cylindrical detonator with two wires dangling from it. Navy
specialists confiscated the object, inspected it, declared that it was
an explosive of nonmilitary origin and destroyed it.

Their response was hardly a surprise to Vieques residents, according to
Roberto Rabin of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of
Vieques. Viequenses have come to expect denials and deflections from the
Navy on the issue of environmental contamination. They have, Rabin says,
"a long history of dealing with the Navy's mistruths."

The Navy's departure from the island last May was a bittersweet victory
for those who had fought for decades to make it a reality. There was
jubilation at having defeated the Goliath which, in 1941, expropriated
three-fourths of Vieques's land and displaced half the population. And
there was deep satisfaction in expelling the killers of David Sanes, the
civilian guard killed by an errant Navy bomb in 1999.

But the celebration was tainted by fear for Vieques's future. For
sixty-two years, the Navy pummeled the island with millions of pounds of
bombs, missiles, depleted-uranium bullets, napalm and Agent Orange. But
the toxic threat to Viequenses didn't end when the Navy stopped bombing.
Some Navy bombs never exploded when fired, dropping instead into the
shallow ocean water and remaining there, lying on the coral reef or
resting on the ocean floor. These live bombs leak contaminants and pose
an explosive threat to fishers and divers. How, then, does the
Navy--which promised, in a Memorandum of Agreement issued upon leaving
the island, to assume responsibility for environmental cleanup--plan to
deal with the unexploded bombs lying in Vieques's waters?

It doesn't, according James Barton, a former senior technician with the
Navy's Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. The Navy, Barton explains, has
procedures for the safe removal of unexploded bombs on land--but not
underwater. So it has traditionally taken two approaches to unexploded
underwater bombs: blowing them up in place or, as Barton puts it,
"leaving them there and learning to live with them." The former option
is not viable for Vieques; detonating bombs would mean the destruction
of the area's ecosystem, including its delicate coral reef. The
leave-them-be choice, however, is hardly preferable: "If left there,"
says Barton, "the casing of the bombs will deteriorate, gradually
contaminating the surrounding environment."

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