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Navy Should Vacate Vieques in 5 Years, Limit Bombing
Practice During Interim
Puerto Rican leaders say Presidential Panel does
not go far enough
by Tom Bowman, Sun National Staff
September 21, 1999
Copyright © 1999 BALTIMORE SUN. All Rights Reserved.
WASHINGTON -- The Navy should vacate its World War II-era bombing
range off Puerto Rico in five years and until then curtail its
bombing and gunnery practice by up to 50 days a year, according
to the recommendations of a presidential panel.
But the findings of the four-member panel, expected to be released
soon, are being rejected by Puerto Rican leaders, who say the
report does not go far enough. They are bitterly opposed to any
more bombing on tiny Vieques Island, where a security guard was
killed in April by an errant 500-pound bomb from a Marine Corps
"That is not acceptable," said Carlos Romero-Barcelo,
Puerto Rico's nonvoting House delegate, adding that he may join
protesters who are occupying the temporarily closed firing range.
"We are united in purpose to have the Navy stop bombing on
But conservative members of Congress fear that closing the
island will harm America's combat readiness. An alternative site
is yet to be found, they say, and the loss of the range will dull
the fighting edge of U.S. combat forces.
"It's not acceptable to me, either," said Sen. James
M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Armed Services
readiness subcommittee, who has scheduled hearings for tomorrow
on the need for the Navy range. "Unless we find a reasonable
alternative, we should not abandon the range -- at all."
Since the early 1940s, the Navy has used Vieques as the sole
firing range for its ships and aircraft on the East Coast.
Besides pitting top military officers against Puerto Rican
leaders, the issue has spilled into domestic politics, where Puerto
Rican officials on the island and the mainland are pressing Vice
President Al Gore and expected New York Senate candidate Hillary
Rodham Clinton to side with them.
Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello, a top Gore fund-raiser, told
reporters last month that the vice president had assured him that
an alternative to Vieques would be found. But a Gore spokesman
said later that the vice president is only pushing for a solution.
Mrs. Clinton, who angered leaders in New York's substantial
Puerto Rican community by opposing clemency for 16 Puerto Rican
terrorists, has said she is awaiting the results of the Vieques
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen was briefed last week by
members of the Vieques panel, headed by Assistant Defense Secretary
Francis M. Rush, which will call on the Navy to cut back its bombing
days from 180 per year to about 130 or 140, according to sources
familiar with the report.
Moreover, the Navy should vacate the western third of the island
being used for weapons' storage, according to the presidential
panel, and provide economic development aid and health studies
for islanders who believe they have been affected by the bombing.
The island's cancer rate exceeds that of the main island of Puerto
It is uncertain when Cohen will brief President Clinton, who
will make the final decision on Vieques, a 54-square-mile island
eight miles off Puerto Rico and populated by 9,300 people. The
Navy owns two-thirds of the island.
From World War II Pacific assaults against the Japanese to
bombing attacks in Yugoslavia this spring, U.S. troops prepared
on the live-fire range at Vieques.
The deep water and lack of busy ship and aircraft lanes make
it an ideal place for combat training, Pentagon officials say.
Residents of Vieques have long complained about the bombing
noise, pollution and what they see as callous treatment by the
Navy. In April those long-standing frustrations erupted into bitterness
and protests when a Marine Corps F-18 accidentally dropped a bomb
nearly two miles from its target, killing a security guard and
injuring four others.
Navy Secretary Richard Danzig ordered the live-fire range temporarily
closed, and it was soon inhabited by dozens of protesters, including
some Puerto Rican lawmakers. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson has promised
to fast and pray with protesters if the Navy resumes firing.
In June, Clinton appointed the four-member panel. The next
month, Danzig released the findings of a separate Navy panel,
which said that Vieques was vital to national security and should
Still, the Navy report said the number of bombing days could
be reviewed for "consolidation and reduction." Some
training could be moved to other ranges in the continental United
States, it added.
The Navy also said that after reviewing 18 alternate sites,
none could meet its criteria for a firing range. But Vice Adm.
Diego Hernandez, a member of the president's panel, charged that
the Navy purposefully made its requirements so rigid that only
Vieques would meet them.
One source said that after the presidential panel's report
is released, officials will "put heat" on the Navy to
find a new firing range. But Navy officials and lawmakers such
as Inhofe wonder whether an alternative can be found.
Inhofe also said he would introduce legislation to close the
Navy's Roosevelt Roads supply base on Puerto Rico -- which provides
hundreds of jobs and pumps $300 million annually into the economy
-- if Vieques closes.
Yesterday, the Navy said that unless the battle group of the
carrier USS Eisenhower can take part in live-fire training by
December, it will have "a significantly reduced state of
Despite the national security concerns, Puerto Rican lawmakers
such as Romero-Barcelo say they won't abide another day of bombing.
"I can't think of anyone on Puerto Rico who would accept
that," said Flavio Cumpiano, a Washington lawyer representing
the Committee for the Rescue and Development on Vieques.
Some in Congress are siding with the people of Vieques. Sen.
Frank H. Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, has introduced legislation
that would give Puerto Rico control over the Navy lands, saying
that "it's time to return this tiny island to its people."