Since the 1940s, the US Navy and US Marine Corps have used part of the island of Vieques, located seven miles off the Southeast coast of Puerto Rico, as a weapons training facility. For years, the people of Vieques, Puerto Rico, and other concerned activists fought to stop the Navy's use of the island for live bombing. The debate often turned emotional because the people of Vieques felt deeply victimized by the Navy’s use of their island. Vieques was subject to frequent military maneuvers, with accompanying loud explosions. Additionally, the native population was forced to live on only one-third of the island, and in recent years they have complained of heath problems they attribute to environmental damage caused by live bombings. For the Navy’s part, the service held that the land was acquired legally, and that their training facility on Vieques was essential to national security. Vieques was the only location in the Atlantic where the Navy and Marine Corps could simulate all potential combat missions simultaneously. Before elements of the Atlantic Fleet were certified for combat, they first had to steam down to Vieques and train their naval guns, land forces, and air components. In May 2003, under order from President George W. Bush, the Navy officially ceased all training activities on the island. This shift in policy marked a victory for those who had for years lobbied against the use of the island as a bombing facility. However, the Vieques issue is not as cut and dry as it may seem, and the people of Vieques may not have achieved the victory they had hoped for. There are four major issues examined in this report:
Background on the Navy's Presence on Vieques and the Surrounding Controversy
The island of Vieques is located approximately seven miles east of the main island of Puerto Rico. The island is 20-to-21 miles long and four miles across at its widest point. The Department of the Navy eventually acquired roughly two-thirds of the island's total 33,000 acres, of which is used 900 acres (or less than 3% of Vieques' total land mass) for military exercises, eight miles from the nearest inhabited portion. The Navy began acquiring this land between 1941 and 1950 when it bought the property from private landowners.1. (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Map of Puerto Rico
Before the Navy acquired 2/3 of Vieques, the land was owned by fewer than 10% of the population. In fact, 80% of the land acquired by the Navy was purchased from two families. The economy consisted mainly of sugar planations, with the majority of the population living and working on these plantations. When the Navy began its land acquisition, 78% of the population were forced from their homes and moved onto the center of the island without compensation.2.
For over 60 years, the Navy used the island to conduct military exercises, which included aerial bombardment, naval bombardment, Marine Corps amphibious assaults, and various submarine activities off the coast. In recent years, many of the island's 9300 residents began complaining of health problems, such as high rates of cancer, which they attributed to the military exercises. The unrest came to a head in 1999 when an errant missile, launched from an F/A-18, killed a civilian security guard named David Sanes Rodriguez. After that incident, the training facility was overrun with protestors who stayed for almost a year until evicted by US Marshals. After the protestors' eviction, the Navy ceased using explosive ordnance on the range, and in May 2003, officially halted all military activities on the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility.
The Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility, as it was known, was a unique US Navy facility. It actually consisted of four separate training ranges that allowed the Navy to simultaneously test gunnery, sea-launched missiles, air-launched missiles, electronic warfare activies, underwater operations, and amphibious assaults, all with electronic scoring and recording. Before ships of the Atlantic Fleet deployed to areas such as the Meiterranean and the Persian Gulf, they would steam to Vieques to certify their weapons. Vice Admiral Robert J. Natter said of the facility in 199, that "The Vieques weapons range is the only place where aircraft, Navy surface ships, ground forces, and Navy and Marine Corps personnel assigned to our Atlantic Fleet can conduct integrated training with live communication under combat-like conditions." Without such training, for example, surface ships would not be certified to support Marines sent ashore in a combat situation. Marines needing fire support from sea-launched missiles or naval guns could not count on these weapons being accurate.3.
The only drawback to the Vieques facility was its location. Before ships could be deployed on their cruises, they would have to first sail down to Puerto Rico, which added time onto their service. The Navy has replaced the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility with a series of ranges stretching from Virginia down into the Gulf of Mexico. This will cut down on deployment time, but there is still a question as to whether or not these separate ranges will be able to compare to the situations that could be simulated on Vieques.
Environmental Impact of the Navy's Use of the Island
One of the charges leveled against the Navy was that its bombing hurt the ecosysetm on Vieques. However, the Navy appeared to be a good steward of the land. The Navy only used 900 acres for military manuevers out of almost 20,000 that it owned. The Service went to great lengths to preserve the unique flora and fauna of the island, and went out of its way to care for the animals as well. Off the coast of a Navy-owned area is one of the world's largest manatee habitats, and the Navy preserved leatherneck turtle, hawksbill turtle, and pelican nesting areas. In fact, the Navy successfully hatched and released back into the wild 21,000 leatherback and hawksbill turtles.4.
The Navy conducted studies which showed that none of the metals or chemicals used in their ordnance made its way into the inhabited sections of the island. However, the Puerto Rican Health Department released a study that indicated that residents of Vieques were 27% more likely to have cancer than other Puerto Rican residents.5. This is a statistically significant number, and the logical conclusion for many is that the metal and chemicals used in the Navy's ordnance is to blame. While this may certainly be true, there simply is not enough scientific evidence at this time to conclusively link the high cancer rate with the Navy's activities. More research desperately needs to be done in this area so that the problem can be rectified.
Environmental Impact of the Navy Leaving Vieques
With roughly 16,000 acres of beautifully preserved wilderness, endangered species, and a bioluminescence bay that lights up at night when fish (or swimming tourists) move through the water, Vieques could become a center of eco-tourism. This could invite several problems if not planned properly. Two plans in particular would have a negative effect on the ecosystem. The first plan calls for a tourist resort that would be located on a turtle habitat. The second pan calls for a new fisherman's wharf. Both plans raise several subtle issues. While harming the turtle's habitat is obvious, a resort would also bring with it non-native employees that could take jobs away from locals that already make a modest living catering to the small number of eco-tourists that came despite the nearby bombing range. Land would also have to be cleared to provide room for new buildings and parking spaces. The fisherman's wharf would have gasoline spills from its filling station at the end of the wharf, and discarded fish guts would attract sharks and barracuda to the nearby resort. Additionally, more people simply visiting the island could cause environmental damage due to increased foot traffic through endangered species' habitats and the construction of additional hotels to accomodate more tourists. More boat trips to the island will also inevitably result in manatee deaths.6.
Economic Impact of Navy's Departure
The Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, which maintains the bombing range, is the largest employer on the island, and injects an estimated $300 million into the economy every year. The people who wanted the Navy to stop bombing did not want the Navy base to go, but the Navy sees no reason to keep open a base that serves no purpose. Once the Navy leaves, the island will lose a significant portion of its livelihood.
Final Status of Navy-Owned Property and Roosevelt Roads Naval Station
The Navy turned over 15,000 acres on the eastern portion of the island to the Department of the Interior, which is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The Navy also turned over 8000 acres on the western end of the island to the municipality of Vieques, the Puerto Rican Conservation Trust, and the Department of the Interior. In accordance with the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, the Navy is conducting all necessary investigations and cleanup work to protect the environment and human health from any hazardous materials remaining from past activities. Working with guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Puerto Rican Environmental Quality Board, the Navy is investigating 17 sites on the western end of Vieques that may have been contaminated by metals and other chemicals used in naval ordnance.7. Roosevelt Roads Naval Station will be closed according to the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act (BRAC) provisions. Under BRAC provisions, the Navy must close the base within six months of the passage of the bill, and is obligated to assist civilian employees with relocations and outplacement.8. This will help the islanders to some extent, but the fact will still remain that the largest piece of their economy is leaving.
1941 to 2003 - 62 years.
Southern North America
United States, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
The island of Vieques is located seven miles east of the main island of Puerto Rico. The Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility was located on 900 acres on the southeastern coast of Vieques.
The United States Navy and the people of Vieques and Puerto Rico.
Health and Land Pollution
Subtropical Island. The land area of Vieques is covered in both subtropical moist forest and subtropical dry forest, which is among the most endangered habitat types in this climate zone. These forests are home to a variety of species year-round, and migratory birds during the winter. Mangrove lagoons are found on both the eastern and western ends of the islands, providing a home to waterfowl, while the northwestern portion of the island boasts beatifully preserved seagrass beds, which provide an excellent home for manatees and sea turtles.9.
Act Site: Vieques
Harm Site: Vieques
Figure 2: F/A-18 Hornet
One civilian death, David Sanes Rodriguez. Mr. Rodriguez was a security guard who was killed by an errant missile fired from an F/A-18 like the one shown above. His death triggered a wave of protestors who overran the Navy's property. After Mr. Rodriguez's death, the Navy never fired a live missile again.
The Navy and Marine Corps' preparation for war included dropping live ordnance on the island of Vieques. This has led to the environmental contamination of certain portions of the island. Seventeen sites of contamination are now under investigation by the US Navy, EPA, and Puerto Rican Environmental Quality Board. This contamination is also suspected of causing the unusually high rate of cancer on the island (27% higher than Puerto Rico's average). Additionally, live fire testing and jet engines have caused noise pollution on Vieques for over 60 years. The environmental contamination and associated health problems were major reasons for protest and unrest amongst Viequens, Puerto Ricans, and other concerned activists. The Bush administration bowed to the wishes of these groups, and ordered the Navy to cease all military exercises on the island.
The Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility was the only facility in the Atlantic where the Navy could simultaneously test all of its missions with live ammunition to simulate combat.
President George W. Bush ordered that all military activies cease on Vieques by May 1, 2003.