Latin American Report
US Navy Used Depleted Uranium in Vieques
The US Navy admitted on May 27 that in early March of this year, a Marine fighter jet accidentally fired 263 armor-piercing shells loaded with depleted uranium at a Navy practice range on the Puerto Rican island municipality of Vieques, 20 kilometers from an area inhabited by civilians. (A Navy report filed on Mar. 5 said the incident took place on Feb. 19, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson Roger Hannah.) Navy spokesperson Robert Nelson said that Puerto Rico's Environmental Quality Board and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were informed within a week following the incident, as required.
But Puerto Rican officials, including Governor Pedro Rossello and Hector Russe, chair of the environmental board, say they were not informed, according to Secretary of State Norma Burgos. The use of depleted uranium shells in Vieques is forbidden by federal and local laws, as well as Navy regulations. Nelson said the Harrier fighter jet was mistakenly loaded with the radioactive shells at Norfolk, Virginia or Mayport, Florida. So far only 57 of the shells have been recovered. [Washington Post 5/29/99 from AP; El Nuevo Herald (Miami) 5/29/99 from AP]
On May 27, Puerto Rican Independentist Party (PIP) representative Victor Garcia San Inocencio presented a report to the members of a special commission which is studying the effects of the US Navy's exercises on health, ecology and economic and tourism development in Vieques. The report charges that the Navy has been using depleted uranium in Vieques since at least 1980. Garcia also presented the Commission with a copy of a May 10 letter in which the Navy admitted using depleted uranium on Vieques. The letter was sent to Tara Thornton of the Military Toxics Project (MTP) by B.L. [Barbara] Thompson, the US Marine Corps Freedom of Information Act Administrator. [ENH 5/28/99 & 5/29/99 from AP; El Diario-La Prensa 5/28/99 from EFE] [MTP is a national network of community, veteran, environmental justice and labor organizations; it began an international campaign to ban depleted uranium weaponry in 1992. MTP can be reached at http://www.miltoxproj.org or 207-783-5091.]
The Navy rents out the use of its facilities at Vieques to paying customers from around the world, netting more than $80 million a year, the local bilingual newsletter Vieques Times has revealed. A Navy web site advertising the "Atlantic Fleet Training Range Facility" was taken down quickly after it was exposed to the media by Vieques mayor Manuela Santiago Collazo and Senator Kenneth McClintock of the ruling New Progressive Party (PNP) during their televised visit to the site of the Navy's Apr. 19 accidental bombing on Vieques that killed civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez [see Updates #482, 484]. The advantages of Vieques, as promoted on the web site, included "live-fire capability for most non-conventional weapons inventory" and the availability of "airspace, surface and sub-surface water space for developmental and operational testing of new and existing weapons systems." The Vieques Times published quotes, graphics and photos from the web site in its April issue. [Vieques Times Vol. 126, 4/99]
Vieques Protests Continue, One Arrested
Protests against the US Navy's presence in Vieques have continued to grow since Sanes was killed. On May 22 some 600 to 700 union members (according to union estimates) from the Puerto Rican Workers Federation staged a protest on Vieques to demand that the US Navy leave the island. [Hoy (NY) 5/24/99; ENH 5/24/99 from AP]
On May 25 the Navy arrested Vieques activist Pablo Connelly after he entered the restricted zone at Camp Garcia in his vehicle. Navy spokesperson Robert Nelson said on May 26 that Connelly gained access to the base by telling security guards he was going to Blue Beach, where civilians are allowed. He was arrested by Navy officials after driving his car through the firing range zone. Nelson said no legal action will be taken against Connelly, but an order has been issued barring him from entering Navy property anywhere on Vieques or the main island; "if he puts a foot on the beach it would be illegal," said Nelson.
It was the first arrest of a civilian in the Navy's restricted zone since Sanes' death. Connelly's mother, Myrna Pagan, said her son was bringing donations of food and supplies to the demonstrators who are camped out in civil disobedience actions at several sites on Navy installations. Nelson insisted that Connelly was arrested because the Navy is "concerned about your safety," since "the weight of the vehicle could activate live munitions" at the shooting range. "It doesn't bother us if you protest on the beaches, as long as you're out of danger." [ENH 5/27/99 from AP]
On May 29, more than 100 Vieques residents and other activists -- including members of the National Hostosian Congress, the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, the labor movement and members of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) -- set up camp at a Navy area off limits to civilians. There are now at least three areas on Vieques where protesters are illegally occupying Navy land. [ED-LP 5/30/99 from EFE] A demonstration to demand the Navy's departure from Vieques has been called for June 8 in front of the White House in Washington. [Hoy (NY) 5/28/99]