Three years after it left its bombing range in Vieques, the island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, the Navy has been slow to clean up its mess.
May 1 marks three years since the Navy abandoned the island, following four years of protest that rocked the main island and frayed relations with Washington. Since then, Vieques has flourished as a tourist spot. But a last bit of business, the EPA-sponsored cleanup of toxic substances -- such as depleted uranium, mercury and napalm -- has not fully materialized.
Last summer, the EPA finally announced its plans for the cleanup. Unfortunately, the first step of the plan involves detonating numerous missiles, rockets and unexploded ordnance that have accumulated in the 50-plus years of the site's use. The Navy is using a process called "open detonation," because it claims that it is faster and cheaper to blow up the weapons where they are found than to remove them.
As a result, residents of Vieques, who felt they had heard the end of explosions on their island when the Navy left, are now hearing them again.
Even worse, according to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, the EPA says no meaningful cleanup can take place until the remaining ordnance is exploded, and that the process may take up to eight years.
Last August, 23 humanitarian and faith-based organizations in the United States sent a letter to Puerto Rico's Gov. Anibal Acevedo, encouraging him to demand that the Navy find safer alternatives to the current practice of exploding the ordnance. They wrote that the detonations would release toxins into the air, water and the soil. More exposure to such a variety of toxic chemicals is not what Vieques needs. It already has the highest cancer rate of any of Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities.
The EPA and the U.S. government should reassess the policy of open detonation, and at the very least, offer full disclosure of their programs and policies to island residents.
Three years later, the fight to stop the bombing of Vieques is not over.
Ed Morales is a contributor to The New York Times and Newsday, and author of "Living in Spanglish" (St. Martin's Press, 2002). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.