Vieques Island’s Residents Fight for their Land and Health

Vieques Island

As part of the “Puerto Rico: Unsettled Territory” project, Jerilyn Forsythe (Cronkite Borderlands Initiative) has written a very complete account of the situation that the apparently “idyllic island” of Vieques, Puerto Rico, faces; she underlines the island’s troubling history and the reasons why “more than 7,000 of its residents—American citizens by birthright—are suing the U.S. government for terrible ailments they say resulted from the Navy using their island as a bombing range for more than 40 years.” Here are excerpts with a link to the full article below:

The U.S. Navy came to Vieques in 1941 and left in 2004. For a majority of that time, the eastern portion of the island was used for testing weapons, including a variety of munitions and toxic substances typically used in chemical warfare. Protests that drew international attention eventually led to the decommissioning of the Navy’s base in 2003, but its impact on the island lingers. Unexploded ordnance litters parts of the island and a higher than normal incidence of cancer stalks its residents.

“I have seen it affect my family seriously,” said Myrna Pagan, a longtime island resident and activist who was a key organizer in the protests. Pagan, a striking woman of 77, moved to Vieques with her husband in 1971. Her husband, Charlie Connelly, is now battling cancer. Pagan had cancer in 2001 and an unusually high number of her family members suffer from other chronic illnesses.

[. . .] Vieques’ tropical beaches and quiet island lifestyle is a stark contrast to its military history. The island still is mostly undeveloped and wild horses saunter freely through some streets. The island’s per capita income is about $6,500, according to the 2000 Census. The only way to get to and from the island is by ferry, which was overcrowded this spring with vacationers making the eight-mile trip from the main island.

Navy Claims ‘Sovereign Immunity,’ Lawsuit Dismissed: A class action lawsuit was filed against the Navy by three-fourths of the island’s residents in 2005. It seeks monetary reparations for health problems the plaintiffs believe were caused by toxins left over from weapons testing. The lawsuit asserts the Navy failed to warn residents of any potential danger from the government’s military activities. The case, however, was dismissed in 2010 by a federal district court in Puerto Rico. That dismissal was affirmed on a 2-to-1 vote of a three-judge panel of the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals on Valentine’s Day 2012. Both courts said the Navy had “sovereign immunity,” a legal doctrine that gives the federal government broad “discretion” to carry out its activities without being sued, except under a few circumstances specified by Congress. The court declined to judge the case on its merits. [. . .] The dissenting appellate judge in the case, Juan Torruella of Puerto Rico, wrote that the government shouldn’t have been shielded by sovereign immunity because it knew how toxic the bombings were but chose not to warn Vieques residents.

80 Million Pounds of Chemical Weapons:  The amount of potential toxins on Vieques is sobering. More than 80 million pounds of chemical weapons, bombs and ammunition were dropped on the eastern portion of the island for a good part of the 20th century. Its soil still harbors bullets filled with radioactive depleted uranium and unexploded bombs. [. . .] The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) contends there is no definitive connection between the Navy’s weapons testing and the islanders’ numerous and heightened health problems.

Dr. Cruz Maria Nazario, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Puerto Rico, has studied and critiqued ATSDR’s conclusions since it began its reports on Vieques in 1999. She says that the methodology used in the ATSDR reports is flawed. “They design their studies so that they reach no conclusion. I think the ATSDR is there to protect the industry and the Navy is the most important industry in the United States,” said Nazario. “The ATSDR, instead of protecting the health of Americans, is protecting the interests of the Navy.”

Vieques Saga Only in ‘First Act’:  Nazario has ceased her critiques of ATSDR since the 2009 report. She says it’s not about finding the cause of Vieques residents’ higher rates of cancer anymore. Now, it’s about getting them treatment. “They have cancer and they will continue to have cancer,” said Nazario.”If they get early diagnosis and good treatment, there is no need for people to die of cancer.” The ATSDR reports also have slowed Vieques residents’ quest for redress but the battles continue in court, Congress and on the island.

[Many thanks to Robert Rabin for bringing this item to our attention.]

For full article, see http://cronkite.asu.edu/buffett/puertorico/vieques.html

For more on the project, see http://cronkite.asu.edu/buffett/puertorico/about.html

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