Friday, June 15, 2001

Vieques eco-cleanup
could take decades,
critics say

Staff and news services

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico >> Even if the U.S. Navy ends six decades of bombing practice on Vieques in 2003, environmentalists say it could take decades to remove unexploded ammunition and clean up the battered reefs.

Responding to President Bush's announcement yesterday that the Navy would stop exercises on Vieques in less than two years, critics said much work remains to prepare the Puerto Rican island for a future without the military.

"The cleanup of Vieques is going to take decades," said anti-Navy activist Robert Rabin. "It must begin immediately, and that's one of the demands that has not been met."

The Navy has used the island to train troops for major conflicts from World War II to Kosovo, and it says the island's terrain and location uniquely allow for simultaneous mock assaults by air, sea and land.

The Navy's use of Vieques is similar to its use of Kahoolawe, and ordnance cleanup there has become an arduous process that is supposed to be done by Nov. 12, 2003.

Dr. Emmett Aluli, chairman of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, said the amount of cleanup is much less than what was agreed upon when the project started in 1998.

"This is the first Navy cleanup project of this magnitude," he said. "The Navy had to learn how to do it, and they still don't know how to do it."

In 1940 the Navy took over part of Vieques though its bombing range covers only 900 acres, less than 3 percent of the island. Troops had used live bombs until two went astray during training in 1999 and killed a civilian guard, prompting protests to demand that the military leave.

Environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said cleaning the island and its reefs will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and "the armed services' record for doing these cleanups has not been a good one."

The Navy similarly left the nearby Puerto Rican island of Culebra in 1975, but signs still warn of unexploded ordnance.

"The Navy has an obligation to clean up the reefs," Kennedy said. "They had the same obligation in Culebra, but anyone who dives there can see there are still bombs that were never disposed of."

Activists say the ample wild lands on Vieques could make it a prime tourist spot if the Navy relinquishes it.

The Navy vehemently denies the exercises have caused any harm and says it maintains the island's environment in a healthy state.

Also, the Navy is now under the gun to find something it has said does not exist: a place that is just as good as Vieques for simulating battles.

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