The Navy must clean up the waste of military exercises carried out on 26,000 acres of contaminated land. (semisquare-x3)
The Navy must clean up the waste of military exercises carried out on 26,000 acres of contaminated land. (GFR Media)

The U.S. Navy will complete the clean up process of the contaminated soil and water in Vieques by 2031 and 2032, respectively, according to its most recent report to Congress.

This has not been well-received by officials in Vieques, who criticize the time the clean up process will take, scarce communication from the Navy and even the use of polluting mechanisms. 

“This frightens me. The longer they keep on extending the clean up process, the later we will recover the land. They control two thirds of the island. We are being controlled by them and we want independence”, said Mirna Pagán, leader of the organization Vidas Vieiquenses Valen (Vieiquenses Lives Matter).

This organization was created to follow up and ensure the decontamination process and recovery of Vieques.

The document - dated December 20 - responds to a requirement of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act (Public Law 115-769), which establishes that the Navy and the Army Secretaries must submit to Congress reports on the progress of the decontamination processes in Vieques and Culebra.

In written statements, Jennifer González, Resident Commissioner in Washington, thanked the attention of the Navy regarding the urgent need for clean up in Vieques and for forwarding the report to Congress and her office.

The report identifies 54 areas. About 16 are located in western Vieques, and the remaining 38, in the east. Of the total, 51 are closed, although classified as suitable for unrestricted use, and do not need further actions. Two of the remaining three areas are in the clean up phase, and the other will continue in the process in 2021, according to the six-page document.

The report states that since 2005, they have removed ammunition in 4,000 acres as well as in 23 miles of roads and beaches. And that, to date, the Navy has eliminated 7.7 million articles classified as hazardous materials that present a potential explosion risk. These include 102,000 munitions, 39,000 shells, 32,000 bombs, 4,300 mortars, 1,300 rockets, 16,000 submunitions and 9,400 grenades, flares, pyrotechnics and other ammunition.

In addition, 18.7 million metal pieces related to ammunition have been processed and 16.4 million pounds of scrap have been sent abroad to be recycled.

The report states that to reduce the risk of explosion, the Navy has worked in 16 of the 18 areas where it was determined that ammunition had to be reduced. Priority areas include the removal of munitions on beaches, roads, hunting areas and crab caves, parking areas, places and sightseeing areas.

17 of the 18 places identified for clean up expect to have “final remedies” next year and will be completed between 2020 and 2031. 

Regarding cleanup of water, the report indicates that removals, investigations and remedial actions have a high level of uncertainty. It is highlighted that, for the past few years, they have focused on identifying technology that allows locating underwater ammunition in the most effective and safe manner, although limitations remain in some cases. According to the document, the greatest difficulty is in working near some endangered coral species, and in those with high tides and waves.

The report concludes that the clean up works are expected to last until approximately 2031 on the soil and until 2032 on water.

From 1941 until 2003, the so-called “Isla Nena” was used by the U.S. Navy for military-training exercises and weapons testing. The U.S. Navy left Vieques in 2003, after an intense fight of the Viequenses and the whole island, which was accentuated by the death of David Sanes, a Viequense who worked for the U.S. Navy and was accidentally killed by a bomb that misfired.

The Navy must clean up the waste of military exercises carried out on 26,000 acres of contaminated land.

Both Pagán and Ismael Guadalupe, a Vieques leader, reported that open burning of scrap still persists, further contaminating the island's environment.

"This does not contribute to the concept of Vieques being clean again," said Pagán.

They fear that the land will be given to foreign or inadequate hands. Only 3,000 of the 26,000 acres occupied by the Navy have already been returned to local neighbors.

"They have to return it, but not to the federal or state government. There is no trust. I believe in the Superfund site, but that it is the people who took it, the ones who expropriated it," Guadalupe said.

In addition, Pagán denounced that, for several years, the municipality of Vieques has not had representation in the Restoration Advisory Board responsible for coordinating the efforts for the clean up process The mayor of Vieques, Víctor Emeric, did not answer calls from this newspaper.

"Communication with the Navy has been brief since the hurricane (María). Little communication, bad communication," said Pérez.

The report also highlights that the clean up was stopped as a result of the cyclone and resumed in January 2018. A group of experts inspected all the beaches, and determined that there was no ammunition exposed or accessible on the coasts. $ 28.7 million was allocated for cleaning this year and an additional $ 5 million was added to cover additional costs for recovery after the hurricane.

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