Legacy of the US Navy in Vieques

Economic Stagnation

Vieques has a population of approximately 9,400 inhabitants. It has an unemployment rate of almost fifty percent (50%) by most conservative estimates. General Electric, which is one of the few large companies in Vieques, will end its operations this summer. Fishing is the only industry in the island of Vieques with any truly viable economic significance. This is obviously due to the Navy’s expropriation of the most fertile lands in the island that formerly sustained a respectable agricultural activity. Carlos Zenón, the former President of the Fishermen Association, said that when the US Navy ships enter the one-hundred-foot deep waters where the fishermen have their traps, “the ships’ propellers destroy the buoys that indicate where the traps are.” When that happens it is hard for them to find the nets. As a result, the nets stay at the bottom of the sea for eight or twelve months, attracting many fish that ultimately die in the traps. The US Department of Agriculture conducted a study of these traps and found that a single net collects from 4,500 to 5,000 pounds of fish in ten months, which poses a severe environmental threat to the fragile marine ecosystem in that region. In 1977, for example, the US Navy destroyed 131 traps.

Ecological Damage

The immediate effects of the bombings in Vieques are the destruction of delicate ecosystems in the island, which supports hundreds of species of plants and animals that are killed instantly upon the direct impact of the projectiles during military target practices. Furthermore, these bombings and military maneuvers lead to serious contamination of the environment due to toxic residues. In an article published in 1988, engineer and environmental consultant Rafael Cruz-Pérez identified three ways in which the military’s bombings pollutes the environment in Vieques: (1) Chemicals in the Missiles’ explosive payloads, (2) Dust and rock particles released into the air as a result of the impact and/or explosion of missiles, and (3) Metallic residues left by missiles after they detonate, and the junk and scrap heap they use for target practice. “According to information provided by the Navy, this material is never removed…Under the effects of additional explosions and sea breezes, metals are oxidized or decomposed, turning in accelerated fashion into leachates that pollute the environment”, said Cruz-Pérez in his article. He also referred to a scientific study by the Navy, which says that the sources of drinking water in Vieques’ Isabel Segunda village and Barrio Esperanza are polluted with toxic chemicals, like TNT, tetryl and RDX. Cruz-Pérez commented that “the study doesn’t explain how these substances got to the water sources, located more than fourteen kilometers away from the shooting area”. In the 70′s, the US Environmental Protection Agency sampled Vieques’ air and soil. After studying the samples, the EPA determined that the air has unhealthy levels of particulate matter and the ground has iron levels above normal.

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