Vieques: A Test Case For Military Cleanup

by John Marino

May 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOOn the eve of the transfer of Navy land holdings on Vieques to the Department of the Interior, Gov. Calderón announced she would formally solicit the inclusion of the former military training ground on the Superfund, or National Priorities List, which includes the most polluted sites in the nation.

The move — if somewhat overdue — is a good one. Community and environmental activists following the labyrinth of applicable law in the area believe the NPL or Superfund designation will raise the profile of Vieques and could release additional funds, at least for community oversight, and would definitely do no harm.

The suggestion to take full advantage of federal environmental law, ironically, was made by the Puerto Rican Independence Party last December. And it was the inquisitiveness of local environmental reporter Jon Rust that first made public the fact that any state — or in this case commonwealth — governor had the authority to designate a single area within his or her jurisdiction on the list — no questions asked. Neither PIP officials, nor local or federal environmental officials, could confirm that fact until after the story broke. On Wednesday, Calderón said: "The commonwealth government has never exercised that one-time, silver-bullet option. This is the one place that most merits inclusion."

But the move is no silver bullet. The cleanup, and hopes for control of much of the former Navy land which will remain in federal hands, will require a concentrated effort — of a duration that will likely outlast administrations in San Juan and Washington. The complexity of environmental law alone — especially in the fuzzy area of federal regulatory oversight of the military — is one reason for that. There also appears a natural tendency among federal agencies to enforce actions against each other only when pushed to do so.

There are few political rewards to going out on a limb for less than 10,000 U.S. citizens -- especially when the story of Vieques is wearing thin on the public’s attention after four years. Both Popular Democratic Party and New Progressive Party administrations have blinked when faced with an opportunity to enforce environmental oversight over the Navy. But going out on limb for Vieques now is the right thing to do.

Many Puerto Ricans — and publicity seekers from the states — are traveling to Vieques to celebrate the little town’s victory over its giant landlord for six decades. Many others are clutching their hands over their ears through the weekend, hoping on their stars that the whole subject will drop from public discourse with the exit of the Navy. And many standing on both sides of the issue see political status ramifications in the whole Vieques saga.

Vieques is the perfect metaphor for Puerto Rico’s political status with the United States for those looking for one. But Vieques was that rare issue able to rise above the roiling political status debate as well. Calderón showed that a commonwealth administration — despite the handicap of no voting members in Congress, nor a local presidential vote — could exert national influence through its relationships with stateside political figures, notably New York Gov. George Pataki. Her statehood predecessor, and current rival, Pedro Rosselló had done the same with former President Bill Clinton. Even Rubén Berríos, at his most lyrical from his Vieques beach encampment, had made it on to the front page of The New York Times, making convincing arguments for the United States to address Puerto Rico’s political status.

The Vieques cleanup will be a test case closely watched throughout the states, where local jurisdictions have similar concerns over closed or active military training ranges in their neighborhoods. Already, a network of environmentalist watchdog groups on military operations has formed alliances with Vieques community groups. But a much wider alliance of political support is possible because of the national implications of the issue. In short, the opportunity for valuable relationships with stateside politicians over the Vieques issue will continue if demands for even a reasonable level of cleanup are pursued.

For a very long time, all political factions in Puerto Rico spoke with one voice on Vieques. And the main reason for that is that the issue was painted as a health and social justice issue. The cleanup in Vieques is a continuation of keeping the focus on Vieques where it belongs.

In the weeks, months and years ahead, there should be a consensus by the commonwealth government to at least insist on undertaking more extensive soil, groundwater and air testing before the extent of future cleanup plans are signed off on.

Quietly, the Puerto Rico government has trashed federal government cleanup plans for eastern Vieques because the Navy has yet to provide a more comprehensive accounting of the munitions and chemicals it used throughout the decades of war games it practiced on the eastern end of the island municipality.

The commonwealth government says the plans are based on limited and, in some cases, old data. Worse, there is not sufficient background environmental data, comprehensive lists of munitions, chemical components and other contaminants or groundwater and soil analysis in the plans to determine the parameters of any cleanup.

Criticism of the plans by the commonwealth is echoed in comments filed by local community and environmental groups.

The Calderón administration has also quietly hired a consultant to test for potential contamination surrounding the former nuclear target ship the USS Killen, sunk just off a southern beach along with an adjacent barge, both filled with numerous 55-gallon drums. The request for the Superfund designation is another step in the right direction.

But the administration has yet to publicly chart a course to ensure the health of Vieques residents and its environment through an articulated plan of environmental testing and cleanup. That needs to be done.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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