Navy’s Vieques Training May Be Tied to Health Risks
By MIREYA NAVARRO
Published: November 13, 2009
The federal agency that assesses health hazards at sites designated for Superfund environmental cleanups said Friday that it had reversed its conclusion that contamination at a former United States Navy training ground in Puerto Rico posed no health risks to residents.
As a result, it said, it plans to recommend monitoring to determine whether residents of the island of Vieques, the site of decades of live fire and bombing exercises, have been exposed to harmful chemicals and at what levels.
“Much has been learned since we first went to Vieques a decade ago, and we have identified gaps in environmental data that could be important in determining health effects,” Dr. Howard Frumkin, director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said in a statement posted on the agency’s Web site late Friday afternoon. “The gaps we found indicate that we cannot state unequivocally that no health hazards exist in Vieques.”
In a finding in 2003, the agency had said that levels of heavy metals and explosive compounds found in Vieques’s soil, groundwater, air and fish did not pose a health risk.
The action on Friday is a vindication of the 9,300 residents of the small island off the mainland of northeastern Puerto Rico, who are pursuing claims against the United States government for contamination and illnesses. Puerto Rico’s health department has found disproportionately high rates of illnesses like cancer, hypertension and liver disease on the island. In their claims, residents assert that the illnesses are linked to pollutants released in Navy exercises that continued until 2003.
The Environmental Protection Agency has said hazardous substances associated with ordnance may be present in Vieques. In 2005 the training ground was designated a Superfund site, giving the E.P.A. the authority to order a cleanup by the Navy.
The Navy has begun removing hazardous unexploded munitions from its old training ground, but its practice of detonating them in the open air has sowed more fear among residents.
At the request of Congress, the toxic substances agency said this year said that it would “rigorously” review its 2003 finding that metals and explosive compounds found at Vieques did not pose a health risk. Dr. Frumkin and his staff met with residents in August and held meetings last week in Atlanta with scientists from Puerto Rico whose research contradicted agency conclusions.
“Withdrawing this conclusion sends a strong signal to Washington that there’s a health and environmental crisis that’s credible,” said John Eaves Jr., the lawyer representing the residents in a federal lawsuit.
“Based on this action today,” he said, “I believe there will be a comprehensive plan to address the crisis in Vieques.”