Clearing Out Without Cleaning Up: The US and Vieques Island

Josué Meléndez writes on the Vieques situation for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Here are some excerpts. You can click on the link for the full article.

Health and the Environment

Artillery shelling and weapons testing are not usually involved in assessments of environmental damage. However “[v]irtually every conventional and non-conventional weapon used by the U.S. between 1940 and 2003, has been used in Vieques.”5 These weapons containing chemicals and heavy metals have been found to be seriously detrimental to public health. For example, soldiers training on Vieques have reported firing depleted uranium shells, despite being a violation of federal law. Depleted uranium shells give off extremely toxic tiny radioactive particles once they begin to oxidize. These same particles can travel great distances, propelled by wind and water, and once ingested by humans, can expose the host to large doses of radiation. Not surprisingly, according to Dr. Katherine T. McCaffrey, a professor of Anthropology at Montclair State University, cancer rate in Vieques is 27 percent higher than in the rest of Puerto Rico.6

As previously mentioned, the Navy occupied about two-thirds of the island and the residents were left with what remained. The Navy’s munitions depot bordered them to the west, while the actual bombing and the gunnery training range lay to the east, effectively surrounding the locals and subjecting them to any waste produced from the naval base. Today, each one of these particular sites presents their own unique challenges. In a North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) report on the Vieques cleanup, Katherine McCaffrey described the condition in which the west end of the island was treated:

In the west, where the navy maintained an ammunition depot and a small operational base, cleanup is connected to the storage and disposal of munitions. Almost 2 million pounds of military and industrial waste-oil, solvents, lubricants, lead paint, acid, and other refuse–were disposed of in different sites in mangrove swamps and sensitive wetland areas. A portion of this waste contained extremely hazardous chemicals. One 200-acre site was used to detonate and burn excess and defective munitions.7

The contamination on Vieques was caused by the munitions that were dropped on the east end of the island, the unexploded ordnances that continue to leak into the environment, and the U.S. Navy’s general disregard for the disposal of chemicals. This reveals the Navy’s lack of concern for the health of the residents of Vieques and their disregard for the well-being of the island as a whole.
Interestingly, the Navy considers the western side of the island to be the clean side of the island, yet their clean-up efforts have hardly scratched the surface of the waste problem, and they have done even less on the more heavily contaminated eastern end of the island. Due to years of bombing, the eastern side has also suffered significant topographical damage, a problem that the western end fortunately does not face.

The Navy illegally fired depleted uranium shells while the base was still occupied; naturally, officials at the time claim that such incidents were entirely accidental. However, the millions of pounds of ammunition and bombs that were dropped could not have been unintended. These various categories of ordnances are just as hazardous as depleted uranium shells, and in many ways even more dangerous, simply because of the large quantity of hazardous materials that were dropped. Although they may not contain uranium, “[h]azardous substances associated with ordnance use may include mercury, lead, copper, magnesium, lithium, perchlorate, TNT, [and] napalm.”8 Mercury is extremely poisonous to humans, and, due to biomagnification, it is a substance that increases in concentration as it moves higher up the food chain. A small amount in the environment can become absorbed by fish, which in turn can affect those who consume the fish. For an island such as Vieques, where fishing is a way of life, the effects of contaminated fish can be far-reaching. In fact, there is research that indicates that poisonous metals have already entered the Vieques food supply. The NACLA report mentioned above possessed information from two studies conducted in Vieques, the first of which showed high levels of lead, cobalt, nickel, and manganese in violin crabs and plants. The second study reported high levels of contaminants including lead, copper in plants near civilian areas of Vieques.9 Not only is the local food supply being contaminated by heavy metals, but “nitrates and explosives” have also contaminated their ground water.10 Human samples have proven the high levels of toxicity to which the islanders are exposed. “About 80 percent of the hair samples tested positive for heavy metals. Many of the results show levels of toxic elements in people that are literally off the charts — the lines representing substances like lead, mercury, arsenic, aluminum and cadmium extend beyond the ‘dangerous’ area and out of the grid entirely.”11

The Navy in Vieques did not limit itself to testing naval ordnance. Sherrie Baver, a professor of Political Science at The City University of New York, in an article about the U.S. government’s use of various chemical weapons on the island, specifically addressed the release of triocyl phosphate. This chemical is associated with several medical issues involving the skin and respiratory tract and has been shown to cause cancer in animals.12During the Vietnam War, the Navy also tested Agent Orange, a dangerous herbicide used in Vieques. Agent Orange has been shown to cause debilitating birth defects in children whose mothers had been exposed to the noxious chemical. In addition, veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during the war faced higher rates of cancer, nervous system disorders and respiratory problems. Studies have also found that Vieques has “high rates of asthma, skin problems, kidney failure and heart abnormalities.”13 The residents of Vieques were exposed to decades of harmful chemicals, which were routinely distributed by the U.S. Navy. Now that the effects are beginning to appear, the U.S. government refuses to take responsibility for the Navy’s actions. Katherine McCaffrey notes in her report that the Navy claims the toxic contamination of Vieques was not necessarily the result of their activities, but of natural geologic occurrences, excusing them from any obligation to clean up.14 John Eaves Jr., a lawyer representing several Viequenses in a lawsuit against the U.S. Government, sums up the situation in this way, “You cannot walk down the street on this island without counting every house and knowing two or three people on the street that have cancer, or have had cancer, or have died from cancer.”15

Dodging Clean Up Duty

The island should have been decontaminated and all unexploded ordnances should have been removed, but the exact opposite has taken place. To say that U.S. authorities and the Navy have dragged their feet on the cleanup effort on Vieques is an understatement. Even though the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, or “Superfund,” established that sites deemed hazardous due to dumping must be cleaned up, and that the responsible parties should be forced to clean up the site, the Navy has yet to respond. In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally placed Vieques and its surrounding waters and islands on the National Priorities List (NPL) of Superfund sites. This move allows the EPA to determine who is responsible for the contamination as well as hold that party accountable for cleaning up the site.

When the Navy left Vieques in 2003, most of the land that it occupied was transformed into a wildlife refuge under the control of the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. This move complicated the cleanup effort because citizens are not allowed to disturb land that has been designated as a wildlife preserve. Katherine McCaffrey writes:

The base land’s designation as a wildlife refuge was a decision based more on politics than environmental concerns. Legally, cleanup of unexploded ordnance and other military waste is determined by projected land use. Land designated for “conservation use” requires only a superficial cleanup, since presumably no humans will inhabit it. The wilderness designation to the live-impact range, bombed 60 years, has less to do with maintaining the quality of the ecosystem than with evading responsibility for environmental remediation. Land inhabited by pelicans and sea turtles, simply put, is not a national priority for cleanup.16

With much of the island deemed a wildlife refuge, the Navy found a convenient loophole by which it could avoid all responsibility for cleanup.

Leaving the used and unexploded ordnances under an environmental protection label is not an adequate solution. Sherrie Baver notes that because of Vieques’ shifting climate and its singular geography, coupled with its exposure to hurricanes and a naturally porous soil, any leftover ordnance materials that might be strewn across the island have the potential to release even more chemicals and other dangerous substances into the environment, further harming the local population and the local ecosystem.17

The sad reality is that the contamination that has occurred on Vieques will continue to remain unaddressed so long as the land is listed as a wildlife preserve. Even more astonishing is that there have been over 50 identified sites where cleanup was deemed necessary, particularly around the Live Impact Area, where explosives and other kinds of ordnances were detonated in the open. These sites could potentially release more dangerous chemicals and metals into the environment and will likely continue to exacerbate the already grave pollution problems that the island is presently facing. Recently, Congressman Rothman introduced the Vieques Recovery and Development Act of 2011 in the House of Representatives. The bill called for the construction of a state of the art hospital and for compensation for the residents of Vieques.18 However, despite the Congressman’s actions and good intentions, there is little sign that things are going to change.


The Navy acted irresponsibly by bombarding the beaches for hours with artillery shells and dropping chemical weapons onto the forested areas of the island to evaluate their potential. More shocking is their behavior following their departure in 2003. Despite evidence that the high levels of cancer and other deadly illnesses on the island have been linked to actions by the U.S. Navy, it still refuses to accept any responsibility or take an active part in the clean-up process. It is difficult not to conclude that this could only happen in a place such as Vieques, Puerto Rico, a remnant of the United States’ imperialist past, with a population under 10,000 people, who are still trying to figure out their rights as U.S. citizens. However, since the Balzac v. Porto Rico Supreme Court case established that parts of the U.S. Constitution do not apply to Puerto Rico, the commonwealth remains, in some important respects, scarcely more than an imperial colony of the U.S.

References for this article can be found here

You can also find the full report at

4 thoughts on “Clearing Out Without Cleaning Up: The US and Vieques Island

  1. I am not a US Navy veteran or veteran of any service.

    The US Navy was not a friend to Vieques…But it did not cause all the problems here regarding Heath or Economy.

    1. Of course not. But that doesn’t excuse the Navy of anything. When my father taught me the ethics of camping, he taught me to always leave the site better than I found it. If only the Navy operated on the same ethics as my dad.

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