U.S. Navy Bombing on Vieques Now Ended

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico, May 1, 2003 (ENS) - The people of Vieques today celebrated a future without U.S. Navy bombing runs for the first time in 60 years. Hundreds of activists who have been arrested over years of protests against the bombing practice on the island gathered at the Navy's Camp Garcia with thousands of supporters to mark the transfer of the eastern third of Vieques from military to civilian jurisdiction.

Although the memorandum of understanding concerning cleanup responsibilities and other issues relevant to the transfer of lands from the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Department of Interior is still been worked out and was not ready, the official document which transfers those lands was signed today.

The Department of the Navy has transferred all real property on the eastern end of the island of Vieques to the administrative jurisdiction of the Department of Interior as required by a law passed in 2001 and amended last year.

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U.S. Navy Camp Garcia on the eastern end of Vieques (Photo courtesy ATSDR)
Under the law, Interior Department is required to develop the land for use as a wildlife refuge, with the former live ordnance impact area to be designated a wilderness area and closed to the public.

A fund of $2.3 million has been designated this year for the Interior Department to use in the protection and conservation of the battered bombing range.

The Navy will retain responsibility for the environmental cleanup of the lands it has used for target practice. The final extent and cost of the cleanup is linked to land use plans being developed by the Interior Department in compliance with the National Wildlife Refuge Act.

The Navy said today in its announcement of the transfer that Navy officials will participate in future decisions and actions regarding the long term environmental cleanup at Vieques. In addition, the Navy is demolishing and removing all temporary facilities and structures from the former bombing range.

The community organizations historically involved in the struggle to end U.S. naval activity, are demanding "ample and active participation in all discussions, meetings, negotiations, and decision making" related to the land on the eastern portion of Vieques. They want input regarding the transfer, decontamination and restoration of all lands, coastal areas and other natural and cultural resources impacted on Vieques by military activities, says Raul Max of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques.

Adequate funding for the "total decontamination and restoration of Vieques," is a primary demand of dozens of community organizations, as is clear, specific and unequivocal language guaranteeing no future military uses of Vieques.

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Puerto Rican National Parade, New York City, June 2000. (Photo courtesy CUNY-Hunter)
New York Governor George Pataki, who administers a state with a large Puerto Rican population, said today, "After more than 60 years, U.S. Navy bombing on Vieques comes to an end today. This historic event represents a significant victory for the people of Puerto Rico, the people of New York, and Puerto Ricans throughout the nation.

"Two years ago, I traveled to Vieques and expressed my strong support to Governor Sila Calderon and the people of Puerto Rico. I have continued to fight to ensure a permanent halt of Navy combat training and bombing in Vieques for several years, by calling on the federal government and U.S. Navy to find alternative training sites to ensure our military men and women remain the best trained in the world," Pataki said.

"The celebration on the Island of Puerto Rico today echoes the sentiments of all of us who strongly supported and fought for the bombing to come to an end. I congratulate the people of Vieques and Governor Calderon. We stood together, fought for peace and won."

U.S. Marines and U.S. Naval Security personnel train on riot control techniques at Camp Garcia on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, April 2002. The techniques were used to control hundreds of demonstrators on Vieques. (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)
In the morning the people of Vieques staged a great march from the island's major town to the inner doors of the military base Camp Garcia and the entrance to the newly demilitarized zone. This evening a concert directed by Tito Auger was held in celebration.

Tomorrow morning the Vieques citizens will place a large cross on the former bombing range to commemorate the people who have died as a result of illnesses such as heart disease brought on by the bombing.

The celebrations continue all weekend with a Catholic mass of thanksgiving for peace on Vieques, as well as poetry, art, films and speeches, and visits to the local cemeteries.

On February 26, the Community of Vieques expressed its concerns and demands to the White House, the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Government of Puerto Rico in a letter.

The community wants, "Active participation of relevant Puerto Rico government officials in all discussions, meetings and decision making related to the administration of the lands in the eastern part of Vieques as 'wildlife refuges' and 'wilderness areas' and discussions, meetings and decision making related to any possible "enactment of a law that addresses the disposition of such properties" as provided for by federal law," the community representatives wrote.

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More than a dozen crosses have been assembled near the entrance to Camp Garcia. David Sanes, a citizen of Puerto Rico working as a guard for the U.S. Navy, was killed in a bombing accident on Vieques in April 1999. (Photo courtesy ELCA)
The community organizations' letter demands "complete and comprehensive environmental cleanup and restoration of all lands, coastal zones and other natural and cultural resources consistent with the community's historic uses of the eastern portion of Vieques that currently includes the Live Impact Area and Eastern Maneuvers Area and other elements of Camp Garcia."

The cleanup should be conducted with care for the future social and economic development of Vieques, such as "fishing, camping, hiking, kayaking, guided nature tours, other eco-tourism projects, cultural-educational and scientific investigation projects, agriculture, housing and other social uses," the groups wrote.

They are asking for funding by federal agencies for employment of Viequenses to provide adequate protection and conservation of the cultural and natural resources, translation into Spanish of all documents related to the environmental cleanup and restoration of the former Navy lands.

Until April 30, 2001 the west end of Vieques was also a Navy base where munitions were stored. At that time the Navy's property was transferred to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, including Playa Punta Arenas and Kiani lagoon. The Vieques Municipality received about 4,000 acres. The magazines once used for storage of munitions have been emptied. The radar area still belongs to the Navy.