A recent issue of National Geographic Traveler featured a list of its Top Five Caribbean hot spots for the year. Number one is Cuba, the perfect destination if you love those “faded Commie icons,” as the magazine put it. Their second favorite is the Puerto Rican island-municipality of Vieques, which was, until recently, a bomb-testing zone for the US Navy.
Last month, two tourists, perhaps acting on a tip from the glossy mag’s feature, visited a Vieques beach. They found, in addition to the stunning natural beauty they’d been promised, something unexpected: a small cylindrical detonator with two wires dangling from it. Navy specialists confiscated the object, inspected it, declared that it was an explosive of nonmilitary origin and destroyed it.
Their response was hardly a surprise to Vieques residents, according to Roberto Rabin of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques. Viequenses have come to expect denials and deflections from the Navy on the issue of environmental contamination. They have, Rabin says, “a long history of dealing with the Navy’s mistruths.”
The Navy’s departure from the island last May was a bittersweet victory for those who had fought for decades to make it a reality. There was jubilation at having defeated the Goliath which, in 1941, expropriated three-fourths of Vieques’s land and displaced half the population. And there was deep satisfaction in expelling the killers of David Sanes, the civilian guard killed by an errant Navy bomb in 1999.
But the celebration was tainted by fear for Vieques’s future. For sixty-two years, the Navy pummeled the island with millions of pounds of bombs, missiles, depleted-uranium bullets, napalm and Agent Orange. But the toxic threat to Viequenses didn’t end when the Navy stopped bombing. Some Navy bombs never exploded when fired, dropping instead into the shallow ocean water and remaining there, lying on the coral reef or resting on the ocean floor. These live bombs leak contaminants and pose an explosive threat to fishers and divers. How, then, does the Navy–which promised, in a Memorandum of Agreement issued upon leaving the island, to assume responsibility for environmental cleanup–plan to deal with the unexploded bombs lying in Vieques’s waters?
It doesn’t, according to James Barton, a former senior technician with the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. The Navy, Barton explains, has procedures for the safe removal of unexploded bombs on land–but not underwater. So it has traditionally taken two approaches to unexploded underwater bombs: blowing them up in place or, as Barton puts it, “leaving them there and learning to live with them.” The former option is not viable for Vieques; detonating bombs would mean the destruction of the area’s ecosystem, including its delicate coral reef. The leave-them-be choice, however, is hardly preferable: “If left there,” says Barton, “the casing of the bombs will deteriorate, gradually contaminating the surrounding environment.”
A 2001 New York Times article titled “For the Future of Vieques, Look to Hawaii” noted the parallel between the cases of Vieques and Kahoolawe, the Hawaiian island also used for decades as a Navy bombing target. The bombs stopped falling there in 1990, and three years later, a $460 million, decade-long Navy cleanup effort began. But when Kahoolawe was officially transferred back to Hawaii this past November 12, only 71 percent of the land ordnance had been cleared. When asked what became of the unexploded underwater bombs resting off Kahoolawe’s shore, Barton, who was involved in the cleanup while he was still with the Navy, states flatly, “They just left them there.”