In the background, the Puerto Ferro lighthouse, which is located on the south coast of Vieques. (horizontal-x3)
In the background, the Puerto Ferro lighthouse, which is located on the south coast of Vieques. (Xavier J. Araújo Berríos)

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories into Vieques 20 years after David Sanes' death, which marked the process of getting the Navy off the island.  

Washington - Sixteen years after the United States Navy ceased military training operations on Vieques, the date for the cleanup of munitions in the former bombing range and site for military-training exercises is still uncertain.

Although the Navy has begun removing hazardous munitions from its old training ground, which is expected to be completed in four years, the federal government still does not know when or how they will remove the bombs left in the waters of Isla Nena.

Once efforts seeking help and compensation for numerous illnesses Viequenses have alleged that the military’s activities caused to them, the clean-up process on the old Navy training ground is still pending.

In April 2001, as live bullet firing was ceasing, the U.S. government transferred 4,250 acres of the former Navy Training Range to the municipal government. Then 3,500 acres were transferred to the Department of the Interior and 800 acres to the Conservation Trust (PRCT).

On April 30, once the Navy definitely left Vieques, 14,573 acres were transferred to the Department of the Interior to manage as part of a Wildlife Refuge.

Since then, the Navy has managed the removal of more than 104,000 pieces of hazardous material from what used to be the training range, a site the Pentagon called the "crown jewel" of the Atlantic Fleet and considered irreplaceable. The clean-up process cost more than $270 million so far.

However, Navy documents conceded to using more than 300,000 munitions.

The Navy expects to complete the cleanup action no later than 2023, according to its latest report to Congress last December.

But the U.S. Navy stressed in that document that there is "a significant level of uncertainty" about the search and removal of bombs dropped into the sea and that still remain on the seabed.

Repair measures in Vieques waters can be completed by 2032. The report sent to Congress, however, warned that they cannot guarantee that they have the technology to remove the munitions.

The Navy warns in its report to Rep. José Serrano that technology for safe and effective removal of munitions underwater is still being developed.

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González expressed dissatisfaction with the pace of the clean-up process.

"We've had multiple meetings with the Department of Defense and the Navy (on this issue). We have asked to speed it up," said González, who released the Pentagon report.

After Hurricane María struck Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, in Vieques that was severely affected, munitions appeared in areas already cleaned up, said González.

According to the Pentagon report, the Navy focussed almost exclusively on recovery efforts during the three months following the hurricane.

The cleanup resumed in January 2018. 

Out of the $270 million for ammunition removal, $28.7 million were used during the last fiscal year, including $5 million to cover the consequences of the hurricane.

According to the report, hurricane relief funds were used to repair the damage to buildings, equipment, power grid and roads in order to operate safely.

Previously, experts from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had estimated at $500 million the Navy-funded cleanup.

Elías Rodríguez, spokesman for the EPA office in New York, said $50 million of the $270 million budgeted "have contributed to the local economy," including the training of 31 technicians. "This is a long-term project, and we are moving forward to reach our goals," Rodríguez added.

The former Vieques Naval installation is a 23,000-acre facility located on Vieques. According to the U.S.Navy estimates, 9,500 acres of those 23,000 acres may “contain munitions or munitions-related ítems.”

EPA highlighted that approximately 4,000 acres –of the 9,500 restricted to the public- have been cleaned.

The federal agency also noted that the preliminary cleanup in the beach close to the lighthouse and in the southwest beach has been completed.

"These actions allowed public access to the area around the historic lighthouse and the beach, which opened in March 2015," Rodríguez said.

"Scrapping the shell"

For biologist Arturo Massol Deyá, a professor at the Mayagüez University Campus, the first thing is to analyze what the Pentagon means by "a clean-up process". "What they do is clear the areas with unexploded bombs on the surface. They don't clean the soil. They just scrape the shell," Massol Deyá said.

For the professor and associate director of Casa Pueblo, which has conducted studies on the contamination in Vieques, if they have only cleaned 104,000 pieces of hazardous material, then it´s a small sample. The scientist said that in Vieques, an average of 24,000 munitions were used annually.

Massol Deyá said the fact that Navy conceded that the searching for bombs process in Vieques waters is uncertain is particularly alarming. He fears it's a warning that "they're not going to do anything" on that line.

"Those bombs will end up partially rusted and they're going to leave all that on the seabed. We're talking about thousands of bombs,” he added.

The remediation plan

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) for the former Navy facility in Vieques is available for public comment from March 18 through tomorrow April 16, 2019.

According to the proposed plan for removal actions at UXOs  (units) 12 and 14, they did not identify unacceptable contaminant concentrations for humans on the soil, sediment, surface or underwater areas.

Regarding fish and blue crab consumers, the plan states that although “calculations indicate unacceptable non-cancer hazard, metals concentrations responsible for calculated values were concluded to be attributable to natural conditions; therefore, there is no unacceptablen on-cancer hazard associated with past munitions-related activities.”

Open-air detonations

Professor Massol Deyá questioned the Navy's open-air detonations to eliminate munitions found on Vieques, and considers Pentagon reports on the impact of the bombs on the ecosystem, lagoons, aquifers, and marine zones are incomplete.

The National Academy of Sciences has recently released a report warning that there are less contaminant options to clean up the former Navy facility in Vieques.

A committee of prestigious experts suggested that “there are new and emerging technologies for the demilitarization of conventional munitions, which consist mostly of some type of contained burning or contained detonation…these technologies, by their nature, limit the release of constituents into the environment to a relatively small amount.”

The “Alternatives for the Demilitarization

of Conventional Munitions” report also refers to recycling proposals for munitions removal.

Massol Deyá criticized the fact that Navy studies do not allude to those warnings. EPA said the National Academy of Sciences report deals mainly with "conventional munition," which includes "excess, obsolete, and useless munitions.”

In contrast, in Vieques "large quantities of unexploded munitions have been found," which are especially dangerous and require greater care,” EPA said.

To use the detonation chambers, workers would have to transport the munitions over "difficult areas" which would expose their safety, according to EPA. "In contrast, open detonation is a much safer process for site workers because it requires minimal or no handling of the munitions," the federal agency noted in a statement.

However, for the National Academy of Sciences, “public interest groups will always favor Contained Burning or Contained Detonation over Open Burning or Open Detonation.” 

Massol Deyá stressed that the National Academy of Sciences report validates the complaints by experts and residents of Vieques on open-air detonations, which he thinks represent that bombings “continue.” 

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