President Barack Obama should instruct his administration to fulfill his campaign pledge to clean up the Navy's toxic mess in Vieques, Puerto Rico, and to help the victims of Vieques who suffer from a suite of health problems caused by the military's 50-plus-year bombardment of the island.
Back in February 2008, candidate Obama wrote a letter to then Governor Anibal Acevedo Vilá and the people of Puerto Rico in which he promised to "actively work" to clean up Vieques and to help those suffering from the health effects of toxic heavy metals, chemicals and radioactivity associated with the Navy's use of Vieques for target practice and live-fire training since World War II.
Obama wrote: "My Administration will actively work with the Department of Defense as well to achieve an environmentally acceptable clean-up of the former U.S. Navy lands in Vieques, Puerto Rico. We will closely monitor the health of the people of Vieques and promote appropriate remedies to health conditions caused by military activities conducted by the U.S. Navy on Vieques."
But so far, the Obama Administration has not lifted a finger on the issue, leaving the people of Vieques with no relief other than the promise of winning an ongoing lawsuit against the Navy and Defense Department which could take years to work its way through the courts -- time that many ailing Viequenses cannot afford. Many have already died waiting, and those who require radiation treatments and other cancer medicine have to make a long, painful trip to the island of Puerto Rico or to the U.S. every time they need treatment because there are no adequate facilities to treat them on Vieques, Puerto Rico's poorest municipality.
Given the Obama administration's recent declaration of a public health emergency in the asbestos-contaminated town of Libby, Montana, and the recent admission by the government that Camp Lejeune's toxic tap water may have caused cancer and birth defects among the 75,000 Marines and their families who were exposed at the North Carolina base, it is high time for the government to do the right thing for the people of Vieques.
In the case of Camp Lejeune, former Marines were dubbed "poisoned patriots" for enduring years of exposure to the contamination, a label that certainly fits the people of Vieques. And in declaring the health emergency in Libby, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson described "a tragic public health situation that has not received the recognition it deserves by the federal government for far too long," a statement equally relevant to the situation in Vieques.
Scientific tests of the land have confirmed the presence of depleted uranium, Agent Orange and napalm, and testing of Vieques residents revealed dangerous levels of heavy metals including mercury, arsenic and lead. Yet, in the six years since the Navy abandoned the island, progress on cleaning up the Navy's mess has been excruciatingly slow and attention to the health crisis among residents nonexistent.
In March, Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL) told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology that the federal government has neglected the health crisis in Vieques, and highlighted the grim health statistics that clearly document the consequences of the continuing toxic exposure endured by Viequenses. Compared to residents of Puerto Rico, residents of Vieques have a 30% increased chance of cancer, a 73% increased chance of heart problems, a 64% increased chance of hypertension, and a 58% increased chance of diabetes. A May 2001 study looking at the hair of residents in Vieques found that 73% of the subjects were contaminated with aluminum and 30% of children under ten showed toxic levels of mercury. Other heavy metals such as lead and cadmium were also found in high proportions.
"One of the most important jobs that government has is to protect people. And here we have before us a clear case of failure," Rep. Grayson said.
Adding insult to injury, the Navy recently obtained a permit to burn more than 200 acres of vegetation on the contaminated island in order to reveal unexploded bombs and other ordnance, which it would then explode on site, further contaminating the island's residents who live downwind. The Vieques Municipal Legislature recently reaffirmed its objection to the Navy's plan, but the Navy intends to follow through with the burning and open detonation of unexploded bombs, unless the Obama EPA steps in to stop it.
President Obama should instruct all relevant federal agencies to live up to his stated commitment to address the health crisis in Vieques immediately, pursue an "environmentally acceptable" clean-up for Vieques, and work toward a fair and complete resolution to the ongoing litigation. Attorney General Eric Holder can play a major role by instructing Justice Department lawyers to abandon the Bush Administration's use of the "sovereign immunity" defense to deny responsibility for the contamination of Vieques.
Hiding behind the old English colonial ideology of "The King can do no wrong" smacks in the face of equality and justice for all -- ideals our country was founded upon, and which President Obama promised to restore. This administration must relegate the archaic defense of "sovereign immunity" to our nation's Hall of Shame along with unequal suffrage, slavery, and all other forms of discrimination endured by those who believed in America's principles but were denied equal protection.
Any attempt to escape moral responsibility for the cleanup of Vieques will hinder efforts to restore our legacy as a leader in the eyes of the world. The people of Vieques have sacrificed greatly for our nation. They deserve swift justice.