Washington - The U.S. government estimated that the cleanup of former military training sites in Vieques and Culebra could cost $800 million and that the process could take until 2032.
According to a GAO audit, the Navy - two decades after the closure of Vieques military training site - has acknowledged that much work remains to be done to clear Isla Nena waters of unexploded ordnance.
The report stressed that challenges for the federal government on Vieques and Culebra “include logistics, the islands’ topography, and environment, and the safety concerns around handling unexploded munitions.”
“According to Navy officials and documentation, community distrust by some island residents of the Navy’s cleanup efforts on Vieques is a challenge,” added the GAO audit, which was conducted between February 2020 and March 2021. The report is signed by Alfredo Gómez, director of the Natural Resources and Environment team, and Elizabeth Field, GAO’s director of the Defense Capabilities and Management team.
For the GAO, the community’s distrust " is attributable, in part, to the military’s longtime presence on the island conducting activities, such as weapons tests and other military exercises, which were responsible for the contamination of sites across the island.”
On Vieques, where cleanup work began in the mid-2010s, the Navy is in charge of the cleanup process. In Culebra, the task is led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Other agencies are participating in the process.
Through a report on the 2020 Defense spending authorization bill, Washington Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González requested the document.
González recalled that she has introduced legislation to compensate -with up to $110,000- Vieques citizens who show evidence of adverse health effects from U.S. military training exercises in Vieques, which lasted for six decades.
In another 2018 GAO report, the Pentagon had already warned that cleanup of Puerto Rico’s island municipalities would take until 2032. Now, they have estimated the total cost for that work and have detailed the complications of the process.
According to the GAO, the Navy has completed the assessment and cleanup at 51 of the 54 Vieques sites under the Installation Restoration Program (IRP), but “substantial work” remains to be completed in the 19 areas under the Military Munitions Response Program (MMRP).
Of the 54 sites under the IRP, 29 required direct cleanup work. Of these 29, 13 are on the firing range on the east side of Isla Nena and the other 16 in the area of the former ammunition storage area on the west side. The 51 sites where the work was completed were closed.
The Navy reported to Congress in March 2020 that they would have to remove munitions in 16 land surface areas under the MMRP program. They have yet to complete ten.
According to the report, significant cleanup work remains to be done in one beach area under the MMRP program, which may not be completed until federal fiscal year 2032. “This site is approximately 11,500 acres and consists of areas that are known or suspected to have been impacted by munitions or explosives of concern,” including 600 acres near the coast and 29 areas near public beaches, the document added.
Meanwhile, in Culebra, the Corps of Engineers identified 15 former military sites. In 14 of these sites - which include both the main island and the surrounding cays - cleanup work will continue until 2031.
Until the fiscal year 2019, the Pentagon had earmarked $327 million for Vieques cleanup and another $52 million for Culebra totaling $382 million. But the Pentagon estimates that another $420 million would be needed between 2020 and 2032.
As residents constantly claim, the GAO report indicates that one of the drawbacks federal authorities face in their work is the poor transportation system between the big island of Puerto Rico and the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra.
Regarding citizen distrust, the report highlights residents’ concerns about open-air munition detonations, which the Navy claims do not cause harm to the population.
However, Congress, through a proposal by Puerto Rican Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, ordered the Navy Secretary to purchase closed cameras to detonate explosives. The Navy said it expects to begin using them later this year.
Academics and researchers have also recalled that in February 1999, the Navy used depleted uranium as part of its training on Vieques.
Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found no trace of that contaminant, doubt has remained among residents, the GAO acknowledged.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rican researchers remain skeptical about the conclusions by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which found no link between the U.S. Navy’s six decades of military maneuvers on the island of Vieques and the serious health problems of Vieques neighbors.