August 6, 2004

Commentary

Vieques: Paradise Lost

By Gov. Howard Dean, M.D.

August 03, 2004 — For most Americans, the issue of the U.S. Naval bombing range on the island of Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico, is one that was resolved a few years ago when the United States Navy closed its base there after six decades of bombing and other military operations. For the people who live there, the bombing has stopped but, the dying and disease have continued.

I went to Vieques two months ago. The protesters from around the world were gone and so were the TV cameras. Severe environmental contamination and a significant amount of unexploded ordnance and the predictable residue of more than 60 years of bombing still remain. I listened to the family stories of people like Felicita Garcia, a cancer survivor whose husband also has cancer. Ms. Garcia has seen death up close all around her. Her brother died at 14 of leukemia and her sister and her mother also died of cancers.

I listened to Carlos Ventura of the Vieques Fisherman’s Association. He told of the once thriving fishing industry, with fishermen able to sell their fish, crab and lobsters on the big island of Puerto Rico and consume the remainder at home. These days, no one will buy their seafood because it has become common knowledge that it is highly contaminated with heavy metals.

I listened to Hector Melendez, a Vietnam vet who proudly served his country. Lest we forget, Puerto Ricans are American citizens by birth. They willingly serve in our Armed Services and per capita have more Medal of Honor recipients than any state. Mr. Melendez told me that the U.S. Navy claims there are no environmental hazards on Vieques, yet everywhere he goes he sees signs warning islanders to stay away from certain areas because of dangerous contamination.

These are just a few of the people and their stories. Here are some of the facts:

* Tests by civilian, government and military scientists have proven the migration of toxic substances from the bombing range into the civilian areas and the offshore environment.

  * A comprehensive study of death certificates by a medical doctor and an epidemiologist demonstrated gross disparities in cancer, hypertension, heart disease and diabetes rates between people who live on Vieques and those who live on the island of Puerto Rico. Both the University of Puerto Rico scientists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have reported the presence of toxic metals in the crabs of Vieques.

* Hair tests showed toxic levels of aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury in the bodies of island residents.

* A recent peer- reviewed study of mercury risk assessment corroborated higher levels of mercury in Vieques residents as compared to the residents of eastern Puerto Rico and the U.S. Atlantic Coast.

Vieques is a paradise; a beautiful, tranquil island. But, 60 years of Navy bombing on the island has left an environmental catastrophe behind. The American people are a kind and generous people. Our generosity extends well beyond our borders. We are currently spending billions of dollars on the healthcare of Iraqi citizens. We need to spend our money on American citizens as well. And we need to start by addressing the health crisis and clean up in Vieques.

Howard Dean, M.D. and former governor of Vermont, is the founder of Democracy for America, http://www.democracyforamerica.com/ a grassroots organization that supports socially progressive and fiscally responsible political candidates.

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