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Environmental justice and the cleanup of Vieques.


The struggle of Vieques residents against the U.S. Navy has been analyzed systematically from several perspectives, for example, Ayala 2001, Garcia Muniz 2001, Barreto 2002, and McCaffrey 2002. The accomplishment is remarkable given that first, the Navy left its installation during a time of heightened national security concerns; and second, islanders were virtually unanimous in wanting the Navy out. Few issues have so effectively mobilized Puerto Ricans collectively, above partisan politics. Although Viequenses succeeded in recapturing la isla nena in May 2003, this represented only the first stage of the struggle. Now stage two represents the need to gain what locals call devolution, decontamination, health care, and sustainable community development. While all these goals are linked, this article will primarily focus on the issue of decontamination.

It is important to recall that Viequenses had been struggling to expel the Navy from their island since the early 1970s. Part of the explanation for why the Navy remained until 2003 had to do with the ongoing Cold War and a general acceptance in Washington of the military's need for preparedness. Yet another part had to do with the framing of the conflict. While for some, it was portrayed as a struggle by fishermen to maintain their livelihoods (e.g., Griffith and Valdes Pizzini 2002), for other activists, it was framed as a struggle against colonialism. By the 1990s, however, with the end of the Cold War and before the War on Terrorism and in the era of base closings, islanders began their struggle anew. However, this time they framed their mobilization differently.

By the 1990s, organizers had moved away from both radical tactics and a rhetoric of imperialist exploitation. Although perhaps not unjustified, these had previously served to galvanize only a small part of the Puerto Rico's citizens. (1) The accidental death of David Sanes in April 1999, a civilian guard employed by the Navy on Vieques, sparked a year-long civil disobedience struggle that was stunning in its ability to gain Puerto Rican, U. S., and international support. Much of what was new in this mobilization was using the rhetoric of human rights. Also important, however, was reframing Vieques as a battle for environmental justice, a thirty-year-old movement in the United States with increasing resonance abroad (Agyeman, Bullard, and Evans 2003; Roberts and Thanos 2003). Finally, while environmental justice strategies may have been part of the reframing in the first stage of the struggle to oust the Navy, they have become central for stage two as the movement regroups to fight for new goals: decontamination, devolution, health care, and sustainable development.

Notions of environmental justice

In its most basic formulation, environmental justice (EJ) proponents argue that poor people and people of color disproportionately suffer from the harmful impacts of environmental policy (e.g., Gibbs 1982; Faber 1998; Harvey 1999; Roberts and Toffolon-Weiss 2001; Agyeman and Bullard 2003). These theorists maintain that pollution-generating manufacturing plants, transportation hubs, hazardous waste disposal sites, and similar commercial developments, all with negative environmental consequences, are more likely to be located in minority and low income communities in the United States, and increasingly in the developing world (e.g., Clapp 2001) than in whiter, more affluent areas.

Environmental justice represents a new wave of environmentalism that differs markedly from its earlier, mainstream predecessor. Mainstream environmental organizations historically have focused on conservation issues at the national level and, in recent decades, at the global level. In contrast, environmental justice movements have been associated with demands for remediation and social equity, especially at the community or grassroots level. Environmental injustice can be conscious or unconscious and can come in two stages. It can exist in the great disparity in the siting of waste facilities, polluting industries, or other facilities having a negative environmental effect. Additionally, it can exist in the uneven enforcement of environmental laws and regulations between minority/poor and majority communities (Roberts and Toffolon-Weiss 2001: 9). Common strategies of the EJ Movement are to: 1) document the inequitable impacts of environmental harm, particularly on public health, and 2) advocate measures to mitigate documented negative impacts.

This "poor people's" environmental movement began in the late 1970s or early 1980s, depending on the labels used to capture its essence. While some authors refer to "environmental justice and the poor," others are more specific in their focus on "environmental racism and people of color." (2) For those using an "environmental justice" rubric, the movement started with Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal struggle in the late 1970s in upstate New York (Gibbs 1982). In 1977, when residents of a Buffalo New York neighborhood found their basements filled with noxious liquids, some soon linked this event to their children's serious health problems. They learned that their homes and local elementary school were built on top of a filled-in navigational canal that the Hooker Chemical Company had used for the first half of the 20th century to dump its toxic wastes. In the 1950s, the company sold its plant and waste channel to the local Board of Education, where a school and housing development were constructed. By the latter 1970s, heavy rains had caused the chemicals to seep to the surface and into residents' basements. It was also around this time that neighborhood residents realized they had higher than normal rates of cancer and birth defects. Out of their grassroots protest, led by resident Lois Gibbs, came the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste (now the Center for Health, the Environment and Justice), founded in 1981 as a national resource for communities fighting environmental degradation. (3)

Other writers and activists, embracing the more specific "environmental racism" rubric, pinpoint the movement's beginning in 1982 with the struggle in Warren County, North Carolina. Here more than five hundred activists gathered to protest the siting of a hazardous PCB landfill in a predominantly African American and low-income rural community. By 1987, The United Church of Christ (UCC) had formed a Commission for Racial Justice and issued a report the same year, which gave this and similar struggles wide national attention (United Church of Christ 1987).

Whether one uses the concept "environmental justice" or "environmental racism," it is important to underscore the role of progressive church groups in supporting environmental inequity struggles throughout the United States. In 1991, the UCC helped organize the "People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit" in Washington, which resulted in a declaration of 117 principles of environmental justice. The summit also resulted in a pledge by participants to lobby the Federal government to act on environmental injustice (Grossman 1994). The Environmental Protection Agency, aware of the movement and its concerns even before the Washington summit, had established its Environmental Equity Workgroup in 1990 to assess evidence that environmental risks were not being shared equally across class and racial subpopulations. By 1994, environmental justice concerns gained additional, at least symbolic, recognition with President Clinton's "Executive Order on Federal Action to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low Income Populations." (4) The order created the interagency Federal Working Group on Environmental Justice and gave national importance to what had previously been a set of non-linked struggles at the grassroots level. Thus, by the 1990s, environmental justice was perceived as a civil right; and by the late 1990s, the EPA was issuing interim guidelines on how to proceed when environmental injustice is charged under Title VI of the Federal Civil Rights Act (e.g.,, 1998, 2000).

While in the first environmental justice struggles the polluting facilities are often thought of as private corporations (e.g., Gibbs 1982; Harr 1995; Wright 2003), by the 1990s there was a recognition that government activities, for example, decommissioned military bases, could also have disproportionately negative impacts on communities. For years, the Defense Department had argued it was exempt from environmental legislation, citing national security. However, by the 1980s, the military was estimated to be generating 500,000 tons of toxic waste per year, more than the top five U.S. chemical companies combined. In fact,

DOD is by far the largest polluter in the United States ... [and] many current and former DOD ranges sit atop or near sources of drinking water, residential neighborhoods, and hunting and fishing grounds. (5)

Therefore, in 1984, the courts forced the Defense Department to accept responsibility for decontamination at one hundred sites in thirty states. Further, a 1989 lawsuit forced the Department of Energy (responsible for nuclear waste cleanup on military installations) to provide greater public access and information about the cleanup process as well as funds to citizen groups to hire their own experts for technical and scientific reviews of cleanup activities. Still, the military's cleanup responsibilities remain daunting, given its role as the country's longest-standing industrial polluter and steward of some of America's most ecologically sensitive lands (Switzer 2004: 158-9; Barringer 2005: A18).

Finally, although environmental justice may seem like a novel or even irrelevant lens through which to examine the case of Vieques, it may not be so far fetched. In fact, it may be time to revise that standard history of notions of environmental justice to start with the Young Lords in the late 1960s. In a recent analysis of "metropolitan nature" in New York City, geographer Matthew Gandy (2002) highlights the radical environmental politics of the Puerto Rican barrio in the 1960s and early 1970s. He also focuses on the environmental legacy of the Young Lords in New York in the late 1980s and 1990s in EJ groups such as the Toxic Avengers and South Bronx Clean Air Coalition. However, he also notes that the Young Lords' impact in Puerto Rico, where ongoing struggles that linked colonialism to industrialization and environmental degradation in Puerto Rico, gained a special vibrancy.

There has been an implicit, if not fully articulated, environmental justice conception in the Puerto Rican environmental movement as well as a link to progressive church groups in Puerto Rico for decades. (6) Due to the intensive industrialization of Puerto Rico since the late 1940s, Puerto Rico certainly has been no stranger to toxic waste and pollution. The island has the dubious distinction of having hosted twelve of EPA Region Two's approximately 212 Superfund sites (www Two longtime analysts of the Puerto Rico's environment confirm that, in addition to more traditional issues of conservation and coastal zone management, the move m e n t has focused on contamination of air, water, and soil as well as with the health effects of pollution for decades (Garcia Martinez 2006; Valdes Pizzini 2002).

Environmental justice and Vieques

By the early 1990s, as the Vieques struggle reemerged, issues of health and contamination as well as human rights and cultural destruction were essential to the movement's reframing and its ultimate success in expelling the Navy in 2003. Like similar struggles on the mainland, it is important to recall that Vieques is the poorest municipio in Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico remains an ethnically distinct, politically marginal colony of the United States. The difference and exclusion felt by Viequenses may well have been more palpable than for the rest of Puerto Rico since they lived, literally, at the center of the military colonialism. Also essential to the sense of injustice felt by Viequenses was the uniqueness of the island as a bombing range. Contrary to the Navy's claims in 1999 that many military facilities in the U. S. were similar to the Vieques range (Commander U. S. Second Fleet 1999), this was a distortion at best. Vieques was unique, for example, in terms of the intensity of shelling, population density, narrow buffer zones between civilian and military areas, and lack of economic ties between the military base and local population (Giusti Cordero 1999).

While the 1993 formation of the Federal Commission on Base Closures may have served as the catalyst triggering the movement's reemergence--it was the health crisis on Vieques that gave rise to the remobilization of the struggle. especially giving the Comite Pro Rescate y Desarrollo de Vieques (CRDV) part of its razon de ser. A focus on health issues is basic to environmental justice struggles everywhere, and it was not a surprising shift in Vieques since the negative health effects of the Navy's presence had been suspected for years. In 1988, for example, an article published in a Puerto Rican engineering journal documented the high concentrations of explosives in local drinking water (Cruz Perez 1988). Furthermore, during the period between 1988 and 1993, concern also grew about the frequency of certain types of cancer in the community. The secretive nature of military activity and Viequenses' lack of ties to the base intensified fear and suspicion of the military--a situation that would only grow worse over the years. Indeed, the Navy's behavior was almost a standard recipe for sparking this kind of struggle. Fischer (2001: 65) argues that communities are likely to perceive as a serious risk a project or activity that: 1) is imposed by distant or unknown individuals, 2) is not engaged in voluntarily, and 3) continues when the effects of the risk are irreversible.

In addition to a focus on public health, a second common feature of EJ struggles is support from progressive church groups. In the Vieques case, PRISA, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church, for example, were involved in supporting this struggle, as they have been in supporting other Puerto Rican environmental struggles over the years (Valdes Pizzini 2002). What was unique in the Vieques struggle, however, was that several mainstream religious leaders on the island also supported the protesters against Washington's policies; thus, most religious leaders and their denominations spoke with one voice (Prats 2003).

A third factor common to environmental justice struggles and found in the Vieques mobilization is the prominent role of women. Often in these settings, it is poor women with no previous political experience who take on leading roles to protect the health of their families and community. In this struggle, the Vieques Women's Alliance was formed in 1999 initially to demand an end to the bombing, better health care, epidemiological studies, and environmental studies of water, air, and soil. Since the Navy's departure, their goals have expanded to include activities such as protecting the community from uncontrolled planning, promoting a general awareness of women's rights, and promoting specific personal and professional skills for Vieques's women. (7)

The first call for decontamination: The May 2001 land transfer

With the death of David Sanes in 1999 and the ensuing year of mass mobilizations, peace encampments, civil disobedience, and numerous jailings, including those of celebrities, it seemed that the unthinkable was to happen; the Navy might leave Vieques for good. Sanes was the civilian security guard killed in April 1999 when two F-18 jets involved in training exercises, dropped their two 500-pound bombs, but missed their mark by a mile and a half. David Sanes' death provided for the local community, human rights activists, church groups, environmentalists, and the Puerto Rican citizenry at large a visceral example of the injustice of holding large-scale, live fire military training exercises on a small, ecologically fragile island with over nine-thousand inhabitants. The bombing of Vieques became one of the rare issues that allowed Puerto Ricans of all party affiliations to unite on the basis of cultural nationalism and feelings of marginalization (Barreto 2002). After months of negotiations between the Clinton administration in Washington and the Rossello administration in San Juan, the two governments reached a compromise in Winter 2000. The agreement had several components but the part relevant to this discussion was that Washington would conduct a plebiscite for Vieques residents on whether the Navy should stay or leave. If residents voted to expel the Navy, all operations would end by May 1, 2003. Totally apart from the plebiscite, the Navy would relinquish control of the western side of Vieques, an area 8,100 acres in size, by May 1, 2001. The results of the 2001 land transfer presaged the complexities of future Navy-Vieques relations, especially the cleanup of the much larger and more contaminated eastern side of the island.

In the 2001 transfer, parts of the former Naval Ammunition Facility (NAF) were given to local and federal entities. This represented the culmination of the goals of the never-enacted "Vieques Land Transfer Act," which former Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barcelo had submitted to Congress for consideration in 1994 (McCaffrey and Baver 2006). The implementation of the 2001 transfer involved 4,300 acres given to the municipio of Vieques, and 3,100 acres to the U.S. Department of Interior, specifically the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The USFWS land immediately became the first part of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. The remaining 800 acres went to the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust, a non-profit group that maintains land in the public interest. Shortly before the transfer, some local activists urged the Vieques Mayor, Damaso Serrano, not to sign the agreement because no mutually satisfactory remediation strategy had been detailed for the 4,300 acres coming to the municipality.

The problem for the activists was that the agreement required the Navy "to clean up the site according to land use," but this is not a straightforward process. Indeed the evolving struggle over western Vieques and since 2003, over all of Vieques, centers precisely on land use designations. Land designated for residential use, for example, must be much more thoroughly remediated than land intended for conservation purposes. On the western land, called "the clean side" by local residents and a place with future potential for housing construction, the Navy had mainly stored ammunition. Yet a fifty-acre area, where open burning and open detonation had occurred, was cited by EPA in the transfer agreement as dangerous enough to be placed under a non-Superfund provision of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) for study and possible remediation. By mid-2004, fifteen of the sites had been studied; and the Navy considered six as potential candidates for environmental remediation. The 3,100 acres given to the Fish and Wildlife Service and the 800 acres given to the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust were only minimally remediated. (8)

It may be useful here to explain two laws relevant to Vieques' extreme contamination, especially on the east side; they are RCRA and CERCLA. With the Resource Conservation and Conservation Act of 1976 (RCRA), the Federal government required for the first time that states and territories develop solid waste management plans and begin closing all open dumps. One part of RC RA de alt specific ally with hazardous waste, but gave the EPA responsibility to determine a definition of hazardous waste (as opposed to solid waste). RC RA's hazardous waste provision allows EPA oversight from the time the hazardous waste is generated to the time of its disposal. Companies or individuals can be held criminally liable for improper hazardous waste disposal.

CERCLA of 1980, commonly known as the "Superfund law," is more specific in that it deals with abandoned waste sites. Congress reauthorized CERCLA in 1986 and 1990 as it recognized the magnitude of the waste cleanup problem. Within the Superfund program, EPA developed a National Priorities List (NPL) of hazardous waste sites. Although the Superfund Program has been underfunded in recent years and has faced skepticism from environmental organizations for the slow pace of its cleanups (Switzer 2004: 153), the EPA reported in 2002 that 93 percent of the sites on the NPL had been deleted, completed, or were undergoing construction activity.

May 2003: Stage two of the struggle

After the May 2001 land transfer, it took two more years for activists to expel the Navy from Vieques. The process that seemed all but certain after President Bush's announcement in Goteburg, Sweden, in June 2001 (9) became much more uncertain after the events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent preoccupation with national security. It was not until the end of 2002 that it became clear the Bush administration would honor its June 2001 commitment to have the Navy leave the island for good. On May 1, 2003, the roughly 9,100 people of Vieques did celebrate the Navy's departure along with millions of their supporters. Still the joy was tempered with the knowledge that they had to plan rapidly for the future decontamination and development of their community.

One year after the Navy's departure several news articles assessed life on Vieques. Without doubt life had improved for residents of la isla nena, not the least being no longer enduring the Navy's live-fire exercises. The town's mayor, Damaso Serrano, noted, "Tourism is booming and bringing in dollars.... Employment is up ... infrastructure projects are moving forward like never before ... and health care has improved" (Rust 2004). Still, major problems remain, including the fact that locals are not necessarily controlling or benefiting from the rapid development of their community. The rest of this discussion will continue its focus on decontamination but will also offer some thoughts on the linked problem of devolution.

What did the Navy transfer on May 1, 2003? Specifically, on that date, the eastern end of Vieques was transferred to various federal entities. The roughly 15,500 acres contained Camp Garcia and its 900-acre bombing range. Although the Navy had ended activities, more than three-fourths of the island remains in federal hands. Not unlike other decommissioned military facilities, most of the land has gone to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to become a wildlife refuge. Public Law No. 106-398 and various amendments since then (known informally as the Spense Act) permits former military land to be used for conservation purposes. The act was first applied to Puerto Rico in 2001 when land on the western side of Vieques was handed over by the Navy. However, under Spense, the military retains an ultimate claim to the land "if necessary to facilitate military preparedness." (10)

The Comite Pro Rescate as well as other groups continue to call for a complete environmental cleanup and a return of all land to the community. For them, devolution would mean not only all the land of the wildlife refuge but also having the Navy close its radar installation and promising never to return to use the Live Impact Area (LIA) for bombing practice. This scenario is unlikely. The issues of devolution of land and decontamination are intimately linked. The Federal government cannot return land that is highly contaminated and littered with unexploded ordnance, and cleaning the land to a level acceptable for human use, at the moment, seems beyond the funds Washington is willing to spend.

The Vieques National Wildlife Refuge

To restate an essential point of this story, large parts of the island are not slate d for cleanup. The vast majority of the land has been designated as the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge (VNWR). The Refuge was first initiated in May 2001 with the transfer of 3,100 acres on the western end of Vieques to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). At that time USFWS drafted a conservation plan with the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) and the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust for conservation of the western end. In May 2003, 14,573 additional acres from the eastern end completed the refuge for a total of close to 18,000 acres. Two beaches, Playa La Chiva (Blue beach) and Playa Ca r a c as (Red Beach), have been open to the public since 1999; however, most of the refuge will remain off limits to the public indefinitely Officials from the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been developing a management plan for the entire refuge, with public input, that should be finalized by 2006; that plan will be in force for fifteen years (Diaz Marrero and Burgos 2004).

Without doubt, the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge is a breathtaking place with potential to support a thriving ecotourism industry on the island. Since the Navy's departure two of several articles published in the New York Times, for example, illustrate how well-off, environmentally attuned North American vacationers view Vieques.

The Navy was ... leaving behind a priceless gift, 16,000 acres [sic] of untouched land that could make Vieques an unparalleled site for Caribbean ecotourism. ....That land left behind by the Navy has rolling forested hills that rise out of the blue Caribbean. The magnificent white-sand beaches are almost deserted. ...Next to the reserve is an ecological treasure, Bioluminescent [Mosquito] Bay.... The area is all the more precious because the similar bays in the Caribbean have been destroyed by pollution (Todd 2003).

Or, as Times reporter, Claudia Dreifus writes,

This island was great before, but it's really paradise now.... After some wrong turns, we found a lagoon we'd heard about. ...Vieques' much debated future was here, in this rich patch of land. In the overbuilt, overpopulated Caribbean, this is the treasure that will keep Vieques special (Dreifus 2004).

The first point to reemphasize in examining the wildlife designation is that it is not unusual for the Department of Defense to transfer former military facilities to the Fish and Wildlife Service as a refuge; in 2004, the VNWR was one of 542 such wildlife refuges in the United States or its territories. Therefore, the irony that the wilderness and refuge is also a toxic disaster area is not unique. What is unique to Vieques's designation, however, is that it is more accessible than any other decommissioned military installation, and given the constantly changing climate and geology, hurricanes, tidal action, and very porous soil, the leftover ordnance constantly shifts. This poses a special threat to fishermen and recreational boaters in the area; it also poses a threat to groundwater that needs to be tested for leaking ordinance. At present, groundwater is piped in from El Yunque on the main island. This is increasingly viewed as an inadequate solution to water needs as the Vieques population increases since the Navy's departure. Thus one of the long-term benefits of an adequate cleanup of ordnance would be freshwater independence for the island.

Point two is that Viequenses are not opposed to having an idyllic refuge on their island, and most residents support the idea of some of the land as a preserve. Rather, the problem from at least the CRDV's point of view is that the wildlife refuge has been created due to an accident of history (i.e. naval training exercises), not because of a systematic wildlife preservation plan supported by the community. This has happened in other communities in the United States, but Vieques is a small, poor municipio with few economic opportunities. At present, all the evidence suggests that devolution of the federally controlled lands is highly unlikely.

How contaminated is Vieques?

Although contaminated, western Vieques has not suffered the severe ecological destruction of bombing and other maneuvers that is the case in the east. Also relevant is that the Navy has not been especially forthcoming in revealing all of its testing activities on the island.

In addition to unexploded ordnance, eastern Vieques contains six decades of "toxic" and "hazardous" waste. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, this is incorrect. Toxicity refers to a substance's ability to cause harm, and so all waste could fall under that definition. Yet if the substance is stored of disposed of properly, it is not considered hazardous. In contrast, waste is hazardous if it poses a serious threat to human health or the environment if not handled properly. Hazardous waste has a specific legal definition; it must meet at least one of four criteria: i) the potential to ignite or cause a fire, 2) the potential to corrode, 3) the potential to explode, or 4) the capacity to be sufficiently toxic to human health. Finally, the cleanup of Vieques may also involve nuclear waste.

To specify the extent of the cleanup is impossible; what follows, then, is an overview of what may lie ahead. In addition to the millions of pounds of bombs and missiles, the Navy also dropped depleted uranium bullets, napalm, and Agent Orange. Some bombs never exploded and remain on the shallow ocean floor or on a nearby coral reef (Levin 2003). It must be stressed that the cleanup of firing ranges has proven one of the most dangerous, expensive, and challenging tasks in the military base conversion process (Sorensen 1998).

Furthermore, live bombs leak contaminants and remain a threat to anyone fishing or diving in the area. For a while, there had also been concern over the USS Killen, a sunken ship off the east coast of Vieques and used by the Navy for target practice. Prior to being used as a bombing target off of Vieques, the Killen had been used in atomic bomb tests in the Pacific in the 1950s. The Navy stopped using the ship in 1975 and then sunk it in thirty feet of water. Residents became concerned about possible radioactivity from the ship, the result of leakage of toxic chemicals from unidentified drums sunk with the wreck. Although government scientists found no evidence of radioactivity or toxins, the incident served to exacerbate residents concerns about health risks in their community. (11)

Other revelations have been leaking out, like the toxins on other parts of Vieques. In 1999, the Navy admitted that it accidentally fired 267 uranium-tipped bombs at the island (Gelb 2003). More recently, in October 2002, DOD officials admitted the Navy had experimented with chemical and biological weapons on Vieques. Specifically, in May 1969, the Navy had used triocyl phosphate, a chemical related to problems of skin, eyes, respiratory tract, and cancer in animals. Any bombing since 1969 could have dispersed these chemical agents into the surrounding environment (CRDV 2002).

Indeed, EPA gave a concise, specific description of the potential dangers posed by the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Area (AFWTA) when it formally proposed its Superfund listing on August 13, 2004:

The AFWTA facility includes land areas, waters, and cays in and around the islands of Vieques and Culebra impacted by 100 years of military training operations, largely by the U.S. Navy. The Navy used the eastern portion of Vieques for training from the 1940s until it ceased operations there on May 1, 2003. Areas of Culebra we re used for military exercises from 1902 until July 1975. Contaminants of the land and water resulting from these activities may include mercury, lead, copper, magnesium, lithium, perchlorate, TNT, napalm, depleted uranium, PCBs, solvents, and pesticides. (12)

In sum, the Vieques site will prove a highly complex to address. In addition to the heavy metals and ordnance, remediators will have to contend with the degree of dispersion, impacts on lagoons, mangroves, and coral reefs, and the dispersion and solubility of toxics in a tropical rather than temperate climate. (13)

Cleaning up Vieques

Discussions on cleanup of Vieques actually began under a 2000 consent decree signed between the Navy and the Puerto Rican government with EPA oversight. In this agreement, several sites in eastern Vieques were slated for cleanup under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA); this act covers hazardous waste management for facilities still in operation. Under RCRA, the Navy was ordered to identify contaminated sites in eastern Vieques and at that time identified twelve sites where, in most cases, open burning and ordnance detonation had occurred in the Live Impact Area (LIA). By mid-2005, in addition to the LIA, at least forty areas of potential concern had been identified outside the 900-acre LIA. (14)

As early as December 2002, the Commonwealth government requested Superfund status for Eastern Vieques. Under EPA rules, governors of states and other U.S. jurisdiction may use their "silver bullet authority" to declare one time only, and one site only, a priority for cleanup without meeting the other criteria normally required for placement on the National Priorities List of Superfund sites (NPL). In June 2003, Puerto Rico amended the request to include all of Vieques, Culebra, and the waters surrounding both islands. In August 2004 EPA formally proposed the site for Superfund listing, and after several more months of interagency discussions and public comments, in February 2005, Vieques and the waters surrounding Vieques and Culebra gained formal NPL designation. Because the Culebra cleanup began in 1995 under the "Defense Environmental Restoration Program for Formerly Used Defense Sites" under the purview of the Army Corps of Engineers, it is likely to remain the responsibility of the Army, rather than the Navy, to clean up Culebra. Both cleanups, however, will be monitored by EPA. (15)

To put the cleanup process in a larger context, the Pentagon controls about 140 of the 1,240 toxic Superfund sites. More than 100 bases and ranges are now being cleaned up around the United States under the CERCLA/Superfund Program. While the DOD has spent $25 billion on cleanup efforts since 1985, it is also noteworthy that since 2002, the military has sought exemptions to several environmental laws claiming preparedness needs in a time of heightened national security concerns. In fact, the laws from which the Pentagon requests exemption already have waivers for national emergencies (Barringer 2005).

How long will the cleanup take?

Observers of Vieques and its cleanup say that the most apt comparison is the Kaho'olawe bombing range in Hawaii (e.g., Klein 2001). Kaho'olawe was turned over to the state in April 2004 after a ten-year, $460 million cleanup. While the original remediation goal was to remove 100 percent of surface ordnance and thirty percent of subsurface munitions, the military accomplished seventy-seven percent and nine percent respectively. Most of that Hawaiian island remains off-limits. The Kaho'olawe cleanup was done with considerably more powerful brokers in Washington pushing for its completion than is the case for Puerto Rico. Not only does Hawaii have voting members in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, but one of its Senators , Daniel Inouye, has been a powerful member of the Armed Services Committee.

At present, only imprecise estimates exist on the cost and duration of the Vieques cleanup. In March 2004, Navy undersecretary, Hanford Johnson, said cleanup of toxics from eighty-nine acres in the east and five hundred acres in the west would cost $114 million and would take fifteen years. Christopher Penny, Navy Remedial Projects Manager for the western side, said that cleanup would take at least a decade (McPhaul 2004). As of December 2004, only $4.3 million had been spent on the west side of Vieques for cleanup (Economist 2004).

While part of the cleanup involves ordnance, the other part involves removing toxic and hazardous waste. Regarding ordnance clearance, how much the Navy spends depends on several factors. Factor one is land use as determined by the Department of Interior and the Navy. Other factors are, for example, the density of ordnance found, complexity of work, and coordination with other agencies such as the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board (Fellowship of Reconciliation 2003).

The role of community participation

From an environmental justice point of view, the most important issue is the role Vieques residents will have in the mind-numbing complexity of government agencies, programs, reports, and timetables to follow at each stage of the cleanup process. In May 2001, after the first land transfer, a Technical Review Committee was convened to oversee future plans for the western part of the island. After the Navy decided which community members sat on this review committee, the Viequenses understood that active and knowledgeable community participation would be crucial in this less dramatic, more technical stage of their struggle. To meet the need for the community involvement, the Comite Pro Rescate set up an environmental taskforce in Winter 2002 that included Puerto Rican environmental lawyers and scientists (GAPT 2002). The Comite also has sought help from activists in the United States with expertise in working with communities affected by military contamination, in particular, the Committee for Public Environmental Oversight, ARC Ecology, Fellowship Of Reconciliation, and the Military Toxics Project. (16)

Under CERCLA/Superfund cleanup, now for the entire island, community involvement, since 2004 channeled through a Restoration Advisory Board, is essential in negotiating a just, sustainable solution. (17) This is not simple given the highly technical nature of toxic waste and decontamination methods. Additionally, the high level of mistrust that almost always exists between local residents and outsider polluters means that communities mistrust the expert findings and recommendations of the other side, in this case, the U.S. Navy or some other federal agencies. One reason that Vieques has sought Superfund designation is that the program not only encourages community participation but also seeks to level the stakeholders' playing field by providing up to $50,000 per year for technical assistance grants to affected localities. This allows communities to hire their own experts to match those of the polluters. Also, Puerto Rican officials from the Environmental Quality Board usually attend meetings involving community members and Federal officials and are seen as community advocates.

As of mid-2005, little cleanup has taken place but studies under Superfund guidelines are under way. Two issues that now seem especially pressing for Viequenses are the ongoing studies on potential groundwater and soil contamination and ordnance disposal methods. First, the Navy has already conducted baseline groundwater studies and is beginning to determine background levels of chemicals in the soil of eastern Vieques to determine the degree of heavy metals contamination. Residents, however, argue that the Navy work plan is flawed: Since there is no area on Vieques that is free of contamination, no soil samples from the island should be used for baseline studies.

Second, as of mid-2005, 1,900 bombs were disposed of or removed from the LIA on eastern Vieques. Those too dangerous to be moved were disposed of in place-posing continuing contaminating effects for the air, soil, and water. Community members have protested against this disposal method (i.e., open detonation of munitions and unexploded ordnance) raising environmental justice concerns. Several community groups are demanding that the same, safer, closed detonation chamber be used in Vieques that EPA ordered the National Guard to use for cleanup at the Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod. (18)

The biggest challenge for community participation in this second stage of the struggle is keeping the movement alive and energized, especially since the cleanup is highly technical and long-term. Vieques activists, with the help of specialized support especially from Puerto Rican universities, have demonstrated a rapid learning curve in terms of commenting on each phase of the process to negotiate a just remediation. Residents should probably heed the advice of one long-time activist who urged Viequenses to pick their issues since the community cannot fight them all. (19)


When the Vieques struggle began in force in April 1999, it was conceived primarily as a human rights struggle to stop the Navy bombing. Still, there had been a definite concern about community health and underlying environmental justice notions in evidence since the early 1990s. This should not be surprising since from the 1960s, Puerto Rico 's environmental movement has provided islanders with environmental justice notions (without necessarily using the concept) within their larger critique of the island's industrialization under Operation Bootstrap. University professors, progressive church groups, and environmental organizations have been sounding the alarm for decades about air and water pollution, toxic waste, and their effects on public health. Indeed, it has been argued that one of the legacies of the Young Lords movement has been a strong transnational network of Puerto Ricans both in the States and in Puerto Rico, who made the environment and public health issues central to their struggles for more livable communities.

Finally, one of the most common critiques of the environmental justice movement has been that such struggles focus too much on local concerns and not enough of systemic causes of injustice. This seems unfounded in the case of Vieques. The first stage of the struggle to end the bombing as well as this stage to clean the island of toxic and hazardous waste should be seen within the larger co n text of colonialism. The bombing and now its residue are part of Puerto Rico 's history as a military colony. Furthermore, that most of the island will remain in federal hands as a wildlife refuge and is unlikely to devolve to the municipio is perhaps the fate of a place that has little clout in Washington. The Vieques struggle to evict the Navy and to implement a thorough cleanup may continue to highlight systematic injustices in the United States-Puerto Rico relationship.


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(1) An earlier version of this argument was presented as "Ni Una Bomba Mas," co-authored with Katherine McCaffrey at the LASA Annual Meeting, Dallas, March 2003.

(2) In this analysis, the more inclusive concept "environmental justice" is used not only because not all poor people in the United States are people of color, but more importantly because the more inclusive term allows for wider coalition building.

(3) The Center for Health, Environment, and Justice provides information at its website:

(4) Executive Order 12,898 of 1994.

(5) Militox Fact Sheet April 2004. The Military Toxics Project aids communities in the U.S. and abroad trying to remediate environmental degradation caused by U.S. military installations. See

(6) For example, Mision Industrial and PRISA (now MENPRI or Movimiento Ecumenico de Puerto Rico).

(7) Information from Alianza de Mujeres de Vieques, Calle Baldorioty de Castro# 486, Vieques, P.R. 00765.

(8) To track the progress of the cleanup on western Vieques, go to

(9) On June 14, 2001, President Bush announced in Gothenburg, Sweden, where he was attending a conference, that the Navy would leave Vieques by May 2003. See, "Vieques Voters Want the Navy to Leave Now," New York Times, July 30, 2001. This was ultimately confirmed by Navy Secretary Gordon England in a letter to Puerto Rican Governor Sila Calderon on October 18, 2002. See discussion in J. M. Garcia Passalacqua, "Visualizing a future without the U.S. Navy," San Juan Star, Oct. 27, 2002, p. 73, or "Navy Certifies Vieques Pullout," The Vieques Times, 148, February 2003.

(10) The Spense Act, authorizing transfer of decommissioned/former military facilities to conservation lands, is formally Section 1503 of the Floyd D. Spense National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001 (PL106-398), amended by Section 1049 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2002 (PL 107-107). Also, Section 1503 of the Act required the Secretary of the Navy to certify that alternatives to Vieques existed for training exercises before the Navy could leave the island.

(11) While U.S. government scientists found no evidence of radioactivity or toxins (ATSDR 2003), other scientists, publishing in peer-reviewed journals, found contrary evidence (e.g., Diaz and Massol 2003, and Ortiz-Roque and Lopez-Rivera 2004).


(13) I thank an anonymous reviewer for this information.

(14) Personal communication with B. Barry, EPA Region 2, public information officer,

(15) The Army Corps cleans up sites left pre-1986; for sites left after 1986, each military branch is responsible for cleaning its bases.

(16) Several of these groups led workshops in Washington in May 2004 at the conference organized to help with the second stage of the mobilization. "Vieques: Transforming Dreams to Reality: The Struggle Continues!" May 15-18, Washington, D.C.

(17) On the change to a Restoration Advisory Board and for a more detailed discussion of the role of community participation in the Vieques since the Navy's departure, see Deborah Berman Santana's article, "La Lucha Continua: Challenges for a post-Navy Vieques," in this issue.

(18) See Jorge L. Colon, "Technical Evaluation of the Document Titled 'Time Critical Removal Action/Interim Measures Work Plan Surface Munitions and Explosives,'" June 30, 2005. Can be obtained from the CRDV, Apartado 1424, Vieques, PR 00765, (787) 741-0716.

(19) Interview with Aimee Houghton, Center for Public Environmental Oversight, May 15, 2004.
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Author:Baver, Sherrie L.
Publication:CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies
Article Type:Report
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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