Ongoing demands for the decontamination of Vieques

On May 2, at 11:00am, a group of 25 people will leave the town’s fishermen’s dock for the former U.S. Navy bombing range in an action to gather support for demands that the cleanup of Vieques, Puerto Rico be done safely (without open burning and open detonations), that the Navy not return to Vieques, and that all federal lands be returned to Vieques.

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Regarding the demands for cleanup of discarded military supplies (among them, radioactive materials) left by the Navy, recent articles continue to confirm the ravages caused by the continual use of Vieques for live-fire bombing practice. During a research trip to Puerto Rico, James Porter, marine ecologist and associate dean of the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, took samples from underwater nuclear bomb target USS Killen, expecting to find evidence of radioactive matter – instead he found a link to cancer. Data revealed that the closer corals and marine life were to unexploded bombs from the World War II vessel and the surrounding target range, the higher the rates of carcinogenic materials. “Unexploded bombs are in the ocean for a variety of reasons – some were duds that did not explode, others were dumped in the ocean as a means of disposal,” said Porter. “And we now know that these munitions are leaking cancer-causing materials and endangering sea life.”

Data has been gathered since 1999 on the eastern end of the island – a land and sea area that was used as a naval gunnery and bombing range from 1943-2003. Research revealed that marine life including reef-building corals, feather duster worms, and sea urchins closest to the bomb and bomb fragments had the highest levels of toxicity. In fact, carcinogenic materials were found in concentrations up to 100,000 times over established safe limits for commercially edible seafood. Residents in Vieques have a 23% higher cancer rate than do Puerto Rican mainlanders. There is also a higher incidence of respiratory disease and other ills.

A 2004 study by Imar Mansilla-Rivera and Carlos J. Rodríguez-Sierra of the Department of Environmental Health (Medical Sciences Campus) at the University of Puerto Rico, also found high levels of arsenic exposure from fish consumption and evidence that the Vieques population has been chronically exposed to high concentrations of this metal.

So far, the Navy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board have failed to complete an adequate process of decontamination of Vieques. Therefore, Viequenses have been particularly sensitive to talks in Washington about reestablishing a “low-intensity” military presence to serve a strategic purpose for the Armed Forces. To justify the petition for return, General Victor Renaurt of the U.S. Northern Command, argued that a “low impact” presence on the island would help in detecting illegal drug and immigration traffic. Many find it troubling that his statements were made just days after the Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Registry of Diseases expressed its willingness to revise their 2003 studies that indicated no danger to residents’ health from military contamination on Vieques.

For more information on James Porter’s findings, see http://www.elandar.com/vieques/story_vieques_porter1.html

For full article (in Spanish) on reactions to reestablishing Navy presence, see http://www.kaosenlared.net/noticia/vieques-puerto-rico-vieques-no-puede-volver-calvario

Photograph of James Porter from www.uga.edu/columns/090302/news-munitions.html

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