The Navy, which spent decades dropping bombs in training salvos on a pair of small islands off the coast of Puerto Rico, still faces a nearly $800 million job before the cleanup effort is completed, according to a new report made public Monday by congressional auditors.
Despite recent efforts, the service is looking at another decade of work before hiking trails and popular beaches on the islands of Vieques and Culebra can be fully reopened.
In April 1999, a U.S. Marine Corps F-18 Hornet dropped a pair of bonds on the island of Vieques that killed David Sanes, a civilian security guard employed by the Navy. His death sparked protests and international outrage, eventually resulting in the U.S. abandoning the islands in 2003 as a live-fire bombing range for warships and combat aircraft.
Since 2005, the Navy has been removing munitions and explosive hazards to allow workers to safely conduct environmental sampling and gives local residents access to more areas on Vieques. The island has become a popular tourist attraction.
But the Department of Defense still faces a number of challenges in its cleanup efforts, including logistics, climate, the rugged topography of the islands and safety concerns from working with unexploded munitions, inspectors from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found. Unexploded ordnance can leach residues such depleted uranium into the soil, the report said.
The Pentagon faces a PR problem as well.
“The Navy also faces challenges on Vieques with community distrust of the military handling cleanup efforts,” the report stated, noting the Pentagon has already begun seeking greater local input.
The number of items painstakingly removed so far offers a clue to how much was fired, launched and dropped over the years. As of March 2020, crews have removed and disposed of 41,000 projectiles; 32,000 bombs; 4,700 mortars; 1,300 rockets and 12,000 grenades, flares and pyrotechnics.
“Once sufficient munitions removal actions have occurred, site workers can safely enter a site and gather environmental samples from the soil, sediment, surface water and groundwater,” according to the report.
Officers from the Navy and the Army Corps of Engineers who are responsible for overseeing the cleanup efforts are not stationed on either island. Some of the local technicians trained to work with unexploded ordnance also don’t live on either Vieques or Culebra. That poses its own kind of problems, according to the GAO report.
“The transportation infrastructure on each island is not very developed, often with sites accessible only on ungraded and unpaved roadways,” the GAO analysts said. “Transportation to the islands is limited to either ferries or airplanes from the main island of Puerto Rico.”
Navy and Army Corps of Engineers officials told the researchers that the weather made ferry schedules unreliable.
GAO analysts said some residents of the Vieques remain distrustful of the Navy‘s cleanup effort.
“This distrust is attributable in part, to the military’s longtime presence on the island conducting activities … which were responsible for the contamination of sites across the island,” according to the report. “Navy and EPA officials acknowledge that the transformation in the military’s role — going from being the source of contamination to becoming the lead federal agency responsible for cleaning up the contamination — further contributes to the community’s distrust of the Navy‘s actions.”
From 1999 through 2003, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) looked at whether past military activity on the islands exposed residents to harmful levels of chemicals. They found that most fish taken from the waters around the islands contained low to moderate levels of mercury. Air pollution in the residential areas of Vieques was not a public health hazard.
The analysts also looked at test results of groundwater, drinking water from public water supplies as well as public and private wells. They concluded the pipeline-supplied public drinking water on Vieques is acceptable to drink. Past military activities contaminated groundwater under some military sites, but they were not used for drinking water. The groundwater also doesn’t flow toward the private and public wells, the analysts said.
They did find that more people have died of cancer in Vieques when compared to the rest of Puerto Rico, but added, “limitations on the analysis of the data make the findings uncertain and difficult to interpret.”
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