The (U.S.) National Lawyers Guild and other groups have filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against the U.S. government in a case involving Puerto Ricans living in the island of Vieques, an emerging tourism hub which was once used as a bombing range.
The petition accuses the U.S. of abuses following decades of live-fire training on the island by the U.S. Navy, which left in 2003 after an errant 500-pound bomb killed a security guard in 1999.
Guild attorney Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan told The Associated Press on Tuesday that families on Vieques suffer serious health conditions because of a toxic environment left by Navy bombing. The petition was in part filed to force the U.S. government to release more information about the extent of the military’s activities on Vieques and its impact on people, she said.
“There’s a lot of information that remains unknown regarding toxic contaminants,” she said. “People are unaware of what is causing their health issues and the continuous contamination of the island.”
The petition was filed Monday on behalf of 10 Vieques residents who had cancer or have relatives who are sick. The residents also accuse Puerto Rico’s government of neglecting Vieques after the Navy’s departure.
The groups are asking the commission to determine whether the U.S. violated any human rights, said Annette Martinez Orabona, director of the human rights clinic at Puerto Rico’s InterAmerican University’s law school. If that occurs, the commission would make a list of recommendations that the U.S. government would be bound to follow, she said.
“We’re not asking for specific reparations, but at some point we will,” she said. She said they are not focused on money but rather on changes including improved health care and more efficient transportation from Vieques to Puerto Rico.
Martinez said the main goal is to get the U.S. government to acknowledge that the military’s target practice adversely affected people’s health.
“That is something that they have denied over and over again,” she said.
Navy spokesman Jim Brantley did not immediately return a request for comment.
A U.S. agency issued a long-awaited report earlier this year saying it found no proof that decades of military practice bombing on Vieques sickened residents who blame it for high rates of cancer, asthma and other illnesses.
The report was released in March and follows four previous assessments and several updates by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that reached similar conclusions.
Local residents and officials, who blame the military for health problems, have vowed to keep pushing the U.S. government for more studies analyzing the impact of the now-ceased Navy activity on Vieques, which lies east of the U.S. territory’s main island. About 10,000 people live there.
The Navy occupied the island’s eastern and western areas in 1941-2003, using it for warships and aircraft to practice firing live bullets, artillery rounds, rockets, missiles and bombs, according to the report.
The Navy has said its forces accidentally fired 263 rounds of ammunition tipped with depleted uranium in 1999, violating federal law.
That same year, a pilot dropped a bomb on an observation tower and killed a civilian, setting off years of angry protests that led President George W. Bush to end military activity on Vieques in 2003. The property once owned by the Navy is now a national wildlife refuge.
The U.S. has since removed more than 16.5 million pounds of munitions in a cleanup expected to last through at least 2025.
The agency’s director, Dr. Christopher Portier, said the 169-page report reached two conclusions: that there is credible evidence people in Vieques have poorer health than elsewhere in Puerto Rico and that scientists could not find a link between military operations and people’s health.
“That doesn’t mean those linkages don’t exist,” he said. “It means we can’t find credible scientific evidence to support that.”
The agency said that the public water supply was safe and that there were no air contaminants. However, it recommended additional soil testing in residential areas, stating there was still uncertainty about soil contamination because current data were inadequate.
Officials said they found mercury in local seafood, but blamed it on the general presence of the metal worldwide. They also noted that there were no unusually high concentrations of mercury in a fish sampling.
Officials said they did not analyze the possible effect of absorbing a mix of chemicals through food, air and water, saying they did not know the levels of chemicals that residents might have been exposed to.
The agency “recognizes the possibility that this report cannot address accurately the effects of mixtures and cumulative exposures on the health of Viequenses,” the report stated.
During 2001-2003, the U.S. government released four reports stating it found no health hazards in Vieques’ air, soil, seafood and drinking water. Several scientists from the University of Puerto Rico, the University of Georgia and Yale University disagreed, saying residual contaminants were affecting the health of local residents.
In February 2012, a U.S. appeals court upheld a decision to dismiss a lawsuit in which 7,100 residents of Vieques accused the federal government of causing illnesses.
The agency’s report said a higher mortality rate especially from cancer could be partly blamed on a lack of access to adequate medical care.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Thursday October 31, 2013 – Doctors in Puerto Rico have sent a letter to US President Barack Obama requesting him to launch by executive order the decontamination of Vieques and Culebra islands and provide adequate treatment for those harmed by the pollution.
The remedial work in the islands, used for decades as testing grounds by the US Army, would "be the best substantiation of your many times expressed concern for the wellbeing of all the Latino people living in the United States," wrote Eduardo Ibarra, head of the Puerto Rico College of Physicians and Surgeons.
The professional body said it had communicated this same request to President Obama on previous occasions, without receiving an appropriate response.
|Medical professionals claim that islanders have shown higher incidences of cancer, hypertension, diabetes, cirrhosis and epilepsy as a consequence of exposure to contaminants.|
The latest communication reminded the president that an adequate and permanent clean-up was never carried out on Vieques, which was used for experiments with live munitions and as a practice bombing range, and which left significant contamination.
"As is well known around the world, our pristine Islands of Vieques and Culebra were during more than half a century utilized by the armed forces of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to practice air to land, water to land and land to land live bombing and also as dumping grounds for military materials," the letter says.The letter adds that a number of scientific studies have shown that "the population of those thin paradisiac islands have been the innocent victims of high exposure to extremely dangerous contaminants, particularly and conspicuously Mercury.
"As a direct consequence of such contamination of their environment, its population has shown unacceptable higher incidence and prevalence of cancer, hypertension, diabetes, cirrhosis and epilepsy," the letter states.
The US Navy left Vieques a decade ago, and since then only five percent of the contaminants are said to have been removed.