Vieques confrontation deepens over use of depleted uranium bullets

By Jonathan Broder

January 13, 2000

WASHINGTON - A bitter confrontation between the Clinton administration and the residents of Vieques, a small Caribbean island used as a bombing range by the U.S. military, has grown even more poisonous with the Navy's admission that it tested radioactive depleted uranium munitions on the island.

The Navy's acknowledgment last week that Marine warplanes fired 263 rounds of depleted uranium shells at the Vieques firing range during a training exercise last February has prompted accusations the Navy is ignoring health and environmental hazards posed by the munitions.

Activists also charge the Pentagon is covering up other incidents in which the radioactive munitions were fired on the island, and a lawmaker has called for a congressional investigation.

"The use of cancer-inducing depleted uranium on Vieques must be investigated through federal hearings," said Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y.

The Navy owns two-thirds of Vieques, a 52 square-mile U.S. territory just off the coast of Puerto Rico. For more than 50 years, the U.S. military has used a portion of its land as the main weapons firing range for its Atlantic forces. Vieques' 9,400 residents living on the remaining third of the island have long protested the exercises, charging the smoke, chemicals and other residues from the munitions tests have poisoned the island's soil and water and led to increased incidents of cancer and other diseases among the civilian population.

The protests escalated dramatically last April after a bomb killed an islander working as a security guard for the Navy and seriously wounded four other civilians. Enraged, scores of Vieques residents invaded the firing range and set up encampments on the contaminated, shell-pocked landscape, refusing to budge until the Navy agreed to halt all its exercises and leave the island for good.

With all weapons testing at a standstill, negotiations began between Clinton administration officials and the Puerto Rican government, which supports the protesters. Last month, an offer by Clinton to close down the firing range in five years and to use only inert ammunition in the meantime appeared to form the basis for a possible compromise solution.

Then came last week's acknowledgment from the Navy that it had fired depleted uranium rounds on the island. The admission came nearly a year after the fact in response to a Freedom of Information request filed by the Military Toxics Project, a Maine-based group that monitors the military's impact on the environment.

The acknowledgment has not only hardened the demands of Vieques residents; it has also drawn in a entirely new battalion of critics — military whistle-blowers and health experts who claim that exposure to areas shot up with depleted uranium munitions during the Persian Gulf War is a major cause of so-called "Gulf War Syndrome" among American veterans. Now, they say, residents of Vieques — all U.S. citizens — may be the newest known victims of the same syndrome.

The Pentagon rejects these accusations, insisting the radioactivity of depleted uranium is low and the expended shells pose little risk to health or the environment.

The Web site of the Pentagon's Special Office for Gulf War Illnesses cites an interview with Dr. Naomi Harley, a professor at New York University's School of Medicine and an expert on radiation physics.

In the interview, Harley says the fine radioactive residue left by expended depleted uranium shells is almost indistinguishable from the uranium that occurs in soil naturally. She also maintains airborne concentrations of depleted uranium in a war zone are too low to cause serious harm.

"You breathe in some uranium, but the risk is so low, it's very hard to calculate," she said in the interview.

But Maj. Doug Rokke, an Army physician and former director of the Pentagon's Depleted Uranium Project, who studied the health and environmental effects of the radioactive munitions in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait after the Gulf War, says his research has proven the opposite. Exposure to depleted uranium munitions is highly dangerous, he says.

"If you inhale or ingest this stuff, you're going to have health problems right away," he said. "It also contaminates soil and water."

"The Pentagon is not telling the truth about the health and environmental hazards from depleted uranium shells used on Vieques," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of the National Gulf War Research Center, a veterans' organization that has researched the after-effects of the military's use of depleted uranium munitions.

Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran, says the Pentagon is minimizing the hazards surrounding depleted uranium shells because it has found these munitions so effective on the battlefield.

A depleted uranium shell is a solid projectile, made up entirely of uranium-238. Capable of piercing thick armor, the super-heated shell has enormous destructive power, igniting anything in its path as it disintegrates upon impact into fine aerosol particles.

On Vieques, where the prevailing winds blow from the firing range on the eastern side of the island to the populated areas on the western side, incidents of cancer among the residents are 26.7 percent higher than in Puerto Rico, according to a 30-year study released by Puerto Rico's Health Department several years ago. Another Health Department study in 1998 showed there are no significant differences in behavior, such as smoking, between Vieques residents and Puerto Ricans.

"There is no other way to explain this," said Dr. Rafael Rivera Castano, an epidemiologist at the University of Puerto Rico. "In Vieques, there are no factories that contaminate the air. The only explanation is the environmental contamination we've found — lead, arsenic, chromium and now radioactive contamination from depleted uranium — which only comes from the bombing and exercises of the Navy."

Many critics suspect the Navy lied when it claimed its use of depleted uranium munitions was accidental. They note such munitions are tightly monitored and controlled under regulations that require anyone who requests such ammunition to present papers proving he or she is authorized to handle it.

"Those rounds are well marked," said Bob Whistine, an officer at the U.S. Army's Material Command at the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, where the safety measures for depleted uranium munitions were developed after the Gulf War.

Some also have strong suspicions that, contrary to the Navy's claim, last February's live-fire exercise with depleted uranium was not a one-time affair.

The Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, one of several protest groups on the island, filed a Freedom of Information request last June, asking the Pentagon to account for any use of depleted uranium munitions on Vieques from 1985 to the present time by all of the U.S. military branches, along with any private companies and allied countries whose armed forces also utilize Vieques as a weapons testing site. So far, the group has received no reply.

"We're highly suspicious of the excessive delay in a providing substantive response to our request," said Flavio Cumpiano, the group's Washington representative.

Any disclosure of other incidents in which depleted uranium munitions were used on Vieques could weaken the Navy's case for keeping its target range. "The Navy is in the public eye right now, and what they say was a one-time accident could be revealed to have been a pattern," Cumpiano said. "They might be stalling until President Clinton makes a final decision on the future of the Vieques firing range."

Meanwhile, Cmdr. Greg Smith, a Navy spokesman, said in the 2 1/2 months between the February firing incident and the protesters' closure of the Vieques test range in April, Navy experts had retrieved a total of 57 spent bullets. The experts were unable to collect the remaining 206 radioactive shells, he said, because of the presence of the protesters on the firing range.

Though Smith described the firing range as a "hazardous area" and "a place where humans are not meant to be," he noted that further cleanup "is not being currently addressed because there is no requirement to clean up the site at this point."

Rokke calls such decisions "crazy," noting such decisions violate Nuclear Regulatory Commission laws that require the military to clean up contaminated test sites. Rokke added experts could continue to collect spent depleted uranium munitions despite the presence of the protesters.

"The fact that people are there on the firing range with more than 200 DU bullets still unaccounted for is all the more reason to go in there and provide environmental protection," Rokke said.

Sullivan, of the National Gulf War Research Center, said he believes the Pentagon is ignoring the environmental cleanup requirements in Vieques because such action would open the military to similar obligations in other test sites.

"The minute they agree to clean up Vieques, they've got to clean up the test sites in Okinawa, Nevada, Maryland and Indiana, not to mention the live fire sites in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Kosovo," he said. "They don't want to go there."

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