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Murkowski Bill Aims to Shut Vieques Target Range

September 16, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON (AP) - Sen. Frank Murkowski has introduced a bill to give the Puerto Rican government control of U.S. Navy-owned land used for bombing exercises on the inhabited island of Vieques.

"It's time to return this tiny island to its people," Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a speech introducing the bill Wednesday. Earlier in the day, he had met with Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello, who wants the test range returned.

The bill would call for Puerto Rico 's governor to submit a plan for use of the property to President Clinton and Congress. Sixty days after the plan is submitted, the federal property on or within one mile of Vieques would be placed under control of the Puerto Rican government, Murkowski said in the statement.

The Navy has conducted exercises using live ammunition since the 1940s and owns two-thirds of the island. Vieques is located off the east coast of Puerto Rico and is home to 9,400 people.

The Navy's presence has long been controversial, but tensions boiled over after an April 19 accident on the range that killed civilian guard David Sanes Rodriguez. Sanes died when two 500-pound bombs were dropped 1.4 miles off target.

The Navy ceased bombing exercises on Vieques after the accident and Clinton has ordered a Pentagon commission to seek alternative locations for the bombing range. The Navy has said Vieques is the only place it can train its Atlantic Fleet for sea, land and air maneuvers at the same time.

"I fully support the need for our armed services to train, deploy and test weapons, but there are certain things you simply don't do in an inhabited area," said Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight of U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rican leaders also have said that the Navy's exercises are damaging the environment on Vieques. Murkowski's bill would require any federal agency using lands or facilities to be responsible for cleaning up toxic materials before transferring it.

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