Congress must act to clean up Vieques and Culebra

In the spring of 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed forward the establishment of the Puerto Rico Naval Training Range on the Island of Vieques, in order to beef up America’s eastern seaborne coastal defenses during World War II. This training facility, one of the largest in the world at the time, was used continuously for military operations until the year 2001. The last military installations in ‘La Isla Nena’, as it’s known to Puerto Ricans, was close two years later.

The range, which comprises 14,569 acres, including part of the Island of Culebra, nearly nine miles up to the north, provided ground warfare and amphibious training for the US Marines Corp, and naval gunfire support training, and air-to-ground training for the Navy. As a direct result of those exercises, nearly all of the acres of land are currently deemed polluted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The accords that paved the way for the ceasing of military operations in Vieques in the early 2000s stated that the federal government would assume the whole responsibility for the cleanup and restoration of those lands, as well as for the economic development of both islands. Yet, nothing tangible has occurred in the last 10 years.

Since the year 2004, only around $180 million has been disbursed by Congress to clean up the mess that the Navy created, which have delayed the completion date of the project, from the original goal of the winter of 2020, to the summer of 2029, at the earliest.

A recent report by the EPA concluded that in order to clean and decontaminate the Island of Vieques, Congress should allocate around $500 million this year. It also established a time frame of 15 years for the removal of all the unexploded ammunition and bombs that pollute and threaten peoples’ lives, both on the land and in the nearby seabed. Therefore, Congress should act now. There cannot be any more delays or excuses. The lives of almost 10,000 U.S. citizens living on the islands are at stake.

The prompt allocations of funds for the decontamination of Vieques should be one of the priorities during the current budget process and it should also include federal grants for the development of the island’s economy; which was ravage by decades of unmitigated contamination by the U.S. Armed Forces. This is the debt the DoD and Congress have with the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico.

Let me also point out that the Congress needs to enact legislation towards fulfilling the recommendations of the 2011 White House Task Force for Puerto Rico regarding Vieques, which are based in jump starting its economy by providing funds for new industries such as the development of renewable energy platforms, to push forward a sustainable ecotourism base, to develop initiatives in solid waste handling, to offer affordable healthcare for its population and to protect the bioluminescent bay.

The same principal must apply to the Island of Culebra, where the same EPA report concluded that it could take upwards of $84 million and more than 20 years to mitigate the massive environmental damage suffered at the hands of the DoD. Since 1974, when Congress terminated military operations in Culebra, almost no cleaning activities have been made.

In 1995, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, which Congress assigned the task of ridding Culebra of all military-related pollution, have invested just $7.8 million in the effort. That’s hardly a start. More should be allocated. We are requesting that the Congress assign the sum of $40 million to restart the process and to spur an economic revival on this important Island.

As speaker of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, and the direct representative of both Islands, it’s my intention that the start of a real clean-up effort, as well as the injection of a stimulus package to Vieques and Culebra are implemented during this term and that by the end of 2018, we can set a real date for the completion of those projects.

We will get in touch with senators and representatives, as well as members of the Executive Branch, to accomplish this task. We will not rest nor deviate from the path until it is done. That’s my commitment to the residents of both Islands.

Carlos ‘Johnny’ Mendez-Nunez Speaker Puerto Rico House of Representatives.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.