Clearing Out without Cleaning Up: The U.S. and Vieques Island

By: COHA Research Associate Josue Melendez

The island of Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, has long been known for its beauty and its distinct culture, which are unique to the island. The name of the island itself means “rich port” in Spanish, indicating that for years Puerto Rico has served as an economic asset for Spain and the U.S. and, more recently, as a tourist paradise in the Caribbean. The commonwealth of Puerto Rico historically has been subjected to abuse by foreign powers intent on exploiting its rich resources, including a small stretch of land off the island’s east coast called Vieques. The U.S. Navy made extensive use of Vieques for weapons testing up until 2003, when it abandoned the island without cleaning up the traces of years of gunnery practice and test bombings, which were capriciously left behind. The consequences of these bombings continue to surface as cancer rates and incidents of ecological damage begin to mount. U.S. Congressman Steve Rothman has said that, “The injustice toward the people of Vieques, Puerto Rico must end. The time for the U.S. government to right this wrong is long overdue.”1 This is a sentiment shared by thousands of Puerto Ricans who today seek to rectify the past wrongs.

A Great Opportunity

On July 17, 1898, the sovereign government of Spain allowed for the first formal, self-ruling government of Puerto Rico to be inaugurated. It remained in office for nine days until the invasion of U.S. troops. For Washington, Puerto Rico was a valuable gem to add to its imperial crown alongside some of Spain’s other former colonies, including Guam and the Philippines. From that moment on, the U.S. essentially had full control of the Caribbean island and the Spanish were forced to remove all traces of their hundreds of years of presence in the Caribbean. President McKinley himself selected most of the high-ranking officials on the island. Although Puerto Ricans were given some liberties in electing their own local officials, the final legislative authority was in the hands of the U.S. Congress.

Present Imperialism

With the passage of the Jones Act in 1917, Puerto Ricans born on the island were granted certain U.S citizenship rights, meaning they were subject to U.S. law, but could not participate in national elections. The law raised a sensitive subject that remains debated today: what is the exact status of Puerto Rico? Officially, Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the U.S. This means that Puerto Ricans have a non-voting representative in the U.S. legislature and cannot vote in national elections, even though they are citizens of the U.S., and can elect their own representative government. Additionally, the Supreme Court case of Balzac v. Porto Rico (1922) concluded that, despite being a territory of the U.S., Puerto Rico was not an “incorporated territory,” signifying that it was not a part of the union and certain constitutional rights did not apply to the islanders. Critics of U.S. policy maintain that this case established a precedent for the U.S. government treatment of Puerto Ricans as second-class citizens. Although many Puerto Ricans do enjoy certain benefits, such as not paying federal income taxes, they are still required to pay into social security and Medicare despite not receiving the full benefits from either program.

U.S. Navy and Vieques

One of the most significant outcomes of the 1898 Spanish-American War was that Spain was edged out of the Caribbean. Not only did the U.S. now exercise complete hegemonic control over the Caribbean, but it also controlled an area surrounded by water where U.S. officials could build and train an effective navy. With the inclusion of the Philippines and Guam, the U.S. now possessed ports where they could repair and refuel their ships while abroad. Because they could now station ships farther away from their own shores, the U.S. could project their power far beyond their own borders.

These newly acquired, forward bases also allowed the U.S. Navy to dispatch its vessels with greater flexibility in case of an emergency. The outbreak of World War I, and years later World War II, made the need for these bases even more essential. Fears that Hitler might one-day attempt to take possession of the Panama Canal and navigate more freely in the Caribbean drove the United States and earlier England as well, to begin plans for naval expansion. These fears also sparked off a new wave of construction in the Caribbean, which would “provide anchorage, docking, fuel, and repair services for 60 percent of the Atlantic Fleet. Were the United Kingdom invaded, this Puerto Rican base would serve as a refuge for the Royal Navy.”2 Puerto Rico’s strategic potential was due to its proximity to both the U.S. mainland and the Panama Canal, which the Allies certainly did not want falling into the hands of the Axis Powers.

In his book Vieques, the Navy and Puerto Rican Politics, Amilcar Antonio Barreto describes how, in order to make this dream of a Caribbean naval base into a reality, the U.S. military “amassed large land holdings in Puerto Rico, dispossessing thousands of landless peasants in Vieques. Vieques was a perfect spot to practice war, and, with Puerto Rican residents not allowed to vote in national elections, political fallout would be minimal.”3 Not only did U.S. military planning displace thousands of people from their homes, but they also left them without a way of supporting themselves. The majority of the families on the island earned their living by harvesting sugar cane, a struggling industry in Puerto Rico at the time. The U.S. Navy’s expropriation of thousands of acres of land from large farm holdings left many of the poorer workers with no choice but to move to the main island. “Families that resettled on other parts of Vieques found they were prevented from claiming legal title to their new homes. Without titles, the military could readily relocate them again.”4 These relocations and massive land grabs resulted in the U.S. military ultimately owning about two-thirds of the island, while the local inhabitants were forced onto the remaining one-third.

The irony is that, despite the U.S.’ efforts to transform Vieques into a major naval installation, a WWII naval battle never materialized in the Caribbean. By the end of the war, Vieques was no longer seen as the strategic gem it had once been. It was not until the start of the Cold War, a few years later, that the U.S. once again saw Vieques as a strategic asset. The Navy decided to convert Vieques into a location for amphibious training by marine forces, as well as an artillery-bombing site for practice. This was the beginning of a lengthy period of occupation by the U.S. Navy.

Opposition to the base had existed for many years, and in many forms, including attempts by local fishermen to disrupt the movement of Navy ships with their wooden fishing boats. However, following the accidental bombing death of a Vieques native, David Sanes Rodríguez, protests became more intense and gained international attention. Demonstrators infiltrated the base and staged mass sit-ins as a way of drawing attention to their cause and pressuring the U.S. to withdraw. In May 2003, after years of protests by both Viequenses and Puerto Rican mainlanders, along with prominent political figures such as Al Sharpton and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the U.S. finally decided it was time to abandon its naval station in Vieques. After the Navy’s withdrawal from Vieques, much of the land was turned into the Vieques Wildlife Refuge.

Health and the Environment

Artillery shelling and weapons testing are not usually involved in assessments of environmental damage. However “[v]irtually every conventional and non-conventional weapon used by the U.S. between 1940 and 2003, has been used in Vieques.”5 These weapons containing chemicals and heavy metals have been found to be seriously detrimental to public health. For example, soldiers training on Vieques have reported firing depleted uranium shells, despite being a violation of federal law. Depleted uranium shells give off extremely toxic tiny radioactive particles once they begin to oxidize. These same particles can travel great distances, propelled by wind and water, and once ingested by humans, can expose the host to large doses of radiation. Not surprisingly, according to Dr. Katherine T. McCaffrey, a professor of Anthropology at Montclair State University, cancer rate in Vieques is 27 percent higher than in the rest of Puerto Rico.6

As previously mentioned, the Navy occupied about two-thirds of the island and the residents were left with what remained. The Navy’s munitions depot bordered them to the west, while the actual bombing and the gunnery training range lay to the east, effectively surrounding the locals and subjecting them to any waste produced from the naval base. Today, each one of these particular sites presents their own unique challenges. In a North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) report on the Vieques cleanup, Katherine McCaffrey described the condition in which the west end of the island was treated:

In the west, where the navy maintained an ammunition depot and a small operational base, cleanup is connected to the storage and disposal of munitions. Almost 2 million pounds of military and industrial waste-oil, solvents, lubricants, lead paint, acid, and other refuse–were disposed of in different sites in mangrove swamps and sensitive wetland areas. A portion of this waste contained extremely hazardous chemicals. One 200-acre site was used to detonate and burn excess and defective munitions.7

The contamination on Vieques was caused by the munitions that were dropped on the east end of the island, the unexploded ordnances that continue to leak into the environment, and the U.S. Navy’s general disregard for the disposal of chemicals. This reveals the Navy’s lack of concern for the health of the residents of Vieques and their disregard for the well-being of the island as a whole.
Interestingly, the Navy considers the western side of the island to be the clean side of the island, yet their clean-up efforts have hardly scratched the surface of the waste problem, and they have done even less on the more heavily contaminated eastern end of the island. Due to years of bombing, the eastern side has also suffered significant topographical damage, a problem that the western end fortunately does not face.

The Navy illegally fired depleted uranium shells while the base was still occupied; naturally, officials at the time claim that such incidents were entirely accidental. However, the millions of pounds of ammunition and bombs that were dropped could not have been unintended. These various categories of ordnances are just as hazardous as depleted uranium shells, and in many ways even more dangerous, simply because of the large quantity of hazardous materials that were dropped. Although they may not contain uranium, “[h]azardous substances associated with ordnance use may include mercury, lead, copper, magnesium, lithium, perchlorate, TNT, [and] napalm.”8 Mercury is extremely poisonous to humans, and, due to biomagnification, it is a substance that increases in concentration as it moves higher up the food chain. A small amount in the environment can become absorbed by fish, which in turn can affect those who consume the fish. For an island such as Vieques, where fishing is a way of life, the effects of contaminated fish can be far-reaching. In fact, there is research that indicates that poisonous metals have already entered the Vieques food supply. The NACLA report mentioned above possessed information from two studies conducted in Vieques, the first of which showed high levels of lead, cobalt, nickel, and manganese in violin crabs and plants. The second study reported high levels of contaminants including lead, copper in plants near civilian areas of Vieques.9 Not only is the local food supply being contaminated by heavy metals, but “nitrates and explosives” have also contaminated their ground water.10 Human samples have proven the high levels of toxicity to which the islanders are exposed. “About 80 percent of the hair samples tested positive for heavy metals. Many of the results show levels of toxic elements in people that are literally off the charts — the lines representing substances like lead, mercury, arsenic, aluminum and cadmium extend beyond the ‘dangerous’ area and out of the grid entirely.”11

The Navy in Vieques did not limit itself to testing naval ordnance. Sherrie Baver, a professor of Political Science at The City University of New York, in an article about the U.S. government’s use of various chemical weapons on the island, specifically addressed the release of triocyl phosphate. This chemical is associated with several medical issues involving the skin and respiratory tract and has been shown to cause cancer in animals.12 During the Vietnam War, the Navy also tested Agent Orange, a dangerous herbicide used in Vieques. Agent Orange has been shown to cause debilitating birth defects in children whose mothers had been exposed to the noxious chemical. In addition, veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during the war faced higher rates of cancer, nervous system disorders and respiratory problems. Studies have also found that Vieques has “high rates of asthma, skin problems, kidney failure and heart abnormalities.”13 The residents of Vieques were exposed to decades of harmful chemicals, which were routinely distributed by the U.S. Navy. Now that the effects are beginning to appear, the U.S. government refuses to take responsibility for the Navy’s actions. Katherine McCaffrey notes in her report that the Navy claims the toxic contamination of Vieques was not necessarily the result of their activities, but of natural geologic occurrences, excusing them from any obligation to clean up.14 John Eaves Jr., a lawyer representing several Viequenses in a lawsuit against the U.S. Government, sums up the situation in this way, “You cannot walk down the street on this island without counting every house and knowing two or three people on the street that have cancer, or have had cancer, or have died from cancer.”15

Dodging Clean Up Duty

The island should have been decontaminated and all unexploded ordnances should have been removed, but the exact opposite has taken place. To say that U.S. authorities and the Navy have dragged their feet on the cleanup effort on Vieques is an understatement. Even though the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, or “Superfund,” established that sites deemed hazardous due to dumping must be cleaned up, and that the responsible parties should be forced to clean up the site, the Navy has yet to respond. In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally placed Vieques and its surrounding waters and islands on the National Priorities List (NPL) of Superfund sites. This move allows the EPA to determine who is responsible for the contamination as well as hold that party accountable for cleaning up the site.

When the Navy left Vieques in 2003, most of the land that it occupied was transformed into a wildlife refuge under the control of the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. This move complicated the cleanup effort because citizens are not allowed to disturb land that has been designated as a wildlife preserve. Katherine McCaffrey writes:

The base land’s designation as a wildlife refuge was a decision based more on politics than environmental concerns. Legally, cleanup of unexploded ordnance and other military waste is determined by projected land use. Land designated for “conservation use” requires only a superficial cleanup, since presumably no humans will inhabit it. The wilderness designation to the live-impact range, bombed 60 years, has less to do with maintaining the quality of the ecosystem than with evading responsibility for environmental remediation. Land inhabited by pelicans and sea turtles, simply put, is not a national priority for cleanup.16

With much of the island deemed a wildlife refuge, the Navy found a convenient loophole by which it could avoid all responsibility for cleanup.

Leaving the used and unexploded ordnances under an environmental protection label is not an adequate solution. Sherrie Baver notes that because of Vieques’ shifting climate and its singular geography, coupled with its exposure to hurricanes and a naturally porous soil, any leftover ordnance materials that might be strewn across the island have the potential to release even more chemicals and other dangerous substances into the environment, further harming the local population and the local ecosystem.17

The sad reality is that the contamination that has occurred on Vieques will continue to remain unaddressed so long as the land is listed as a wildlife preserve. Even more astonishing is that there have been over 50 identified sites where cleanup was deemed necessary, particularly around the Live Impact Area, where explosives and other kinds of ordnances were detonated in the open. These sites could potentially release more dangerous chemicals and metals into the environment and will likely continue to exacerbate the already grave pollution problems that the island is presently facing. Recently, Congressman Rothman introduced the Vieques Recovery and Development Act of 2011 in the House of Representatives. The bill called for the construction of a state of the art hospital and for compensation for the residents of Vieques.18 However, despite the Congressman’s actions and good intentions, there is little sign that things are going to change.


The Navy acted irresponsibly by bombarding the beaches for hours with artillery shells and dropping chemical weapons onto the forested areas of the island to evaluate their potential. More shocking is their behavior following their departure in 2003. Despite evidence that the high levels of cancer and other deadly illnesses on the island have been linked to actions by the U.S. Navy, it still refuses to accept any responsibility or take an active part in the clean-up process. It is difficult not to conclude that this could only happen in a place such as Vieques, Puerto Rico, a remnant of the United States’ imperialist past, with a population under 10,000 people, who are still trying to figure out their rights as U.S. citizens. However, since the Balzac v. Porto Rico Supreme Court case established that parts of the U.S. Constitution do not apply to Puerto Rico, the commonwealth remains, in some important respects, scarcely more than an imperial colony of the U.S.

References for this article can be found here