Slowly And Silently, Navy's Bombs Kill Islanders

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The Hartford Courant
December 01, 2000

`The Navy leave? Heaven knows they'll wait until it snows."

In a plain wooden frame, this line is tacked to a telephone pole on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

After 60 years of ceaseless bombardment by U.S. military forces, many residents of Vieques are understandably pessimistic. Snow is as alien to Vieques as peace; and even more important, the world is losing interest. Activists are switching to another tragedy because Vieques is yesterday's nightmare.

Thus, Vieques protesters commandeered the Statue of Liberty on Nov. 5, climbed through a window in the lady's head and, using their shoelaces, tied the Vieques and Puerto Rican flags to the points of her crown. The protesters had hoped that Lady Liberty's flame would refocus the world's attention on one point: The residents of Vieques are slowly dying.

Take a deep breath in the barrio called Esperanza and you instantly inhale the wastes of war. As children happily play games, high doses of arsenic lodge in their bodies.

Like cigarette company executives, Navy admirals deny responsibility for the harm. And even though the Puerto Rican government could prove the Navy wrong, it refused to widely disseminate a letter of intent to sue the Navy, dated June 10, 1999, that accuses the U.S. military of "creating imminent and substantial endangerment to the civilian population of Vieques."

These are serious charges indeed, but as Gov. Pedro Rossello explained in the letter, the accusations are firmly rooted in facts provided by the Navy.

Theoretically, the Navy has a legally binding agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency. It bombs Vieques on the basis of permits granted by the EPA. But when the Navy's weapons "routinely discharge toxic pollutants" into the waters in and around Vieques, it must notify the EPA that it has polluted the environment.

Attached to Rossello's letter are eight pages of the Navy's rule breaking, including the consequences of the "open burning" of excess weapons. In the case of arsenic, the Navy was only slightly above the legal limits in 1990; by 1998, it was discharging more than 6.6 times the legal limit of arsenic into Vieques.

Lead is worse. There are 25 reports; none is within the law and one cites discharges of 105 times the legal limit.

Finally, the Navy submitted 30 reports between 1985 and 1999 on cadmium levels. None was within the permit level, and the violations sometimes reached 240 times the maximum allowable limit.

Overall, the Navy's reports incontestably show violations that extend over 15 years. The irony, of course, is that the Navy dutifully reports endless violations of the pollution laws but nobody enforces them.

Why not broadcast the terrible news? My guess is politics. If Puerto Ricans pester the United States about the imminent threats to the people of Vieques, Congress may get angry with Puerto Rican politicians. It will cut off federal funds, so the politicians cut off debate about the lethal consequences of living in Vieques.

They know the world will switch channels. And they can then publicly count the money as doctors silently count the levels of arsenic and lead in the bodies of Vieques residents.

One of them, a friend of mine, recently took a crash course in heavy metals. He logged onto the Internet and for weeks tried to comprehend the consequences of breathing in his own home. Ultimately, my friend cut off bits of his hair, sent them to a medical lab in Florida and got the toxic results.

Arsenic? My friend is off the charts; the printout lacks enough room for his lethal line of arsenic. He's also quite high on lead and aluminum, so he now searches the Net for ways to avoid the cancers sometimes caused by arsenic and the hypertension, numbness and tics and tremors that can be produced by high concentrations of lead in the body.

My friend bought medicine. But the medicine has side effects. Before he shares a potential cure with his grandchildren, my friend is waiting to see if the cure is worse than the disease.

So far, he is surviving - both the medicine and the continued bombing of the Navy.

This leaves President Clinton with a real dilemma. For 102 years, the United States has claimed absolute power in Vieques. The president's representatives again made those claims as recently as Oct. 4.

So, if the United States has absolute power, it must, if reason is our guide, accept primary responsibility for the exercise of that power.

Vieques is the Navy's responsibility. It put the toxic wastes into the bodies of the pregnant women of Vieques. Mr. President, make a miracle. Bring on snow.

Ronald Fernandez is director of the Center of Caribbean Studies at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. His column appears the first Friday of every month. His e-mail address is:

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