Puerto Rico: more cleanup needed for Vieques

As of Dec. 11 authorities had closed the Playa Grande beach area in the western region of a national wildlife refuge on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques following the discovery of pieces of inactive munitions there. The US Environmental Protection Agency said the US Navy had removed a projectile, a mortar tail and other objects, although officials insisted that the materials didn't pose any danger to visitors. The munitions are left over from the Navy's use of Vieques for testing weapons from the 1940s until May 2003, when mass civil disobedience by Vieques residents and their supporters forced the Navy to withdraw. A total of 1,640 arrests were made from 1999 to 2003 as activists carried out militant protests, including a yearlong occupation of the bombing range. Federal judges handed down jail sentences to protesters totaling 26 years, along with fines totaling $50,980.

Most of the territory used by the Navy was turned over to the US Department of the Interior in 2003, although the Vieques municipal government received a portion. Cleanup operations began in 2004. Over the past 10 years the US has spent about $220 million removing 28,000 objects, including munitions, bombs, other artifacts and residue from explosives. According to Pedro Pierluisi, the US Congress's resident commissioner in Puerto Rico, Congress members are seeking an additional $17 million for cleanup efforts next year. Puerto Rican governance secretary Víctor Suárez said a delegation of US experts would be visiting to examine the possibility that new technology could be used to accelerate the cleanup effort. (Associated Press, Dec. 11; Primera Hora, Guaynabo, Jan. 2)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, January 4.