by Carmelo Ruiz / Inter Press Service (www.ips.org) –
SAN JUAN (December 31, 2003) — Now that the US Navy is gone, residents of the Puerto Rican island-town of Vieques face pressing environmental problems. In the last four years the island’s 10,000 residents, together with Puerto Ricans from the main island and peace activists from around the world, carried out a relentless civil disobedience campaign against the Navy, which for decades used the island as a munitions depot and firing range.
The military left officially May 1. But now Vieques must deal with the daunting question of what to do about the toxic mess caused by decades of military activity. Weapons tested in the firing range included highly polluting depleted uranium ammunition.
Most of the former military lands — which include about 80 percent of the island — are now the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
Measuring 7,527 ha (of the island’s total 13,355 ha), it is the largest wilderness refuge in all of Puerto Rico, which is a commonwealth of the United States whose residents have US citizenship.
Many who opposed the Navy presence find it particularly galling that the lands they struggled for have been transferred to another US government agency, instead of being returned to the people of Vieques. Local fishermen complain that FWS will not allow them to fish in the refuge, because of the danger posed by unexploded ordnance.
“This is the same agency that stood by while the Navy bombed the flora, fauna and wilderness, without raising a finger in protest, and now they’re fining people for fishing crabs. This is insulting and completely unacceptable,” declared Robert Rabin, spokesperson of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques.
Restoring Puerto Rico’s Toxic “Wilderness Refuge”
But Vieques FWS employees interviewed by IPS, most of whom are Puerto Ricans, stressed that they are committed to protecting the natural resources of the lands they administer.
Refuge Manager Oscar Díaz said he does not want to see the lands destroyed by the uncontrolled construction of beachside mansions and tourist resorts now occurring on the main island. “This refuge has a dry forest. That’s a treasure that must be preserved because 94 percent of all dry forest in Puerto Rico has been destroyed,” added Díaz.
In what many observers consider a bizarre twist, this wilderness refuge is simultaneously a toxic disaster area. Earlier this month the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended that the lands and marine areas polluted by the Navy be declared a Superfund site.
Superfund is a US government program for the identification and cleanup of areas contaminated with hazardous waste. Once an area is declared a Superfund site, the polluting party — in this case the Navy — is obligated to pay for its decontamination and restoration. Puerto Rico has a dozen Superfund sites.
After the EPA recommends that an area be designated for the Superfund, the agency solicits comments and input from the public, the polluting party and other government bodies before making its final decision.
Although many who took part in the Vieques struggle consider the Superfund designation a great victory, University of Puerto Rico biology professor Arturo Massol warns that the process is a bureaucratic litany and that 20 years can pass before any cleanup even begins.
A Plea to Give Vieques Back to the Residents of the Island
“Superfund status is no guarantee that the cleanup will be done thoroughly and efficiently,” says Massol, who directed the only on-site studies of military pollution in Vieques to be published in peer-reviewed scientific literature. “Most of the money will spend years stuck in litigation or slowed down by administrative matters,” he added.
Massol said that if the history of Superfund in Puerto Rico is any guide, then not much can be expected from the Vieques recommendation. According to the professor, a Superfund site was designated in the abandoned Sabana Seca Navy base in the town of Toa Baja. In response, a parking lot was built over the toxic wastes, and then the EPA declared the problem solved and removed the site from the Superfund list.
The idea that the former Navy lands should be returned to the people of Puerto Rico also has allies in the US Congress. Congressman Joseph Crowley, who visited Vieques last month, told IPS that transferring the lands from the Department of Defense to the Department of the Interior is not adequate.
“I think the lands should be transferred to the government of Puerto Rico. Only that will assure the people that these lands will never again be used for military purposes,” said Crowley, who added that if Congress could assign billions of dollars to the reconstruction of Iraq, then the decontamination of Vieques is no less than a moral obligation.
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