Letter to President Barack Obama About Vieques

04/20/2015 04:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

Dear President Obama:

This month, the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico will again commemorate the death of David Sanes, killed 16 years ago by two errant bombs dropped by the U.S. Navy in the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. Three days later, on April 22, the community of Vieques will reflect on Earth Day while living in one of the most contaminated and toxic places in our planet. This contamination comes as a direct result of the U.S. Navy's activities in Vieques. All of us who care about the environment share their concerns.

I am writing you today to respectfully request that you uphold the promise you made during your presidential campaign in February 2008: to use all available resources to address the man-made health and environmental crisis that afflicts the people of Vieques, Puerto Rico.

For over 60 years, the island of Vieques was shelled continuously with tens of thousands of bombs and toxic chemicals every year. Following the death of David Sanes on April 19, 1999, thousands of citizens, including myself, peacefully protested the U.S. Navy military exercises and were imprisoned, following the democratic tradition of civil disobedience.

Over a decade ago, on May 1st, 2003, the U.S. Navy finally stopped bombing Vieques. In 2005, Vieques was designated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a "Superfund site" -- a glamorous name for a toxic dump. The mortality rate due to cancer in Vieques has been reported as high as 20 percent greater than the rest of Puerto Rico. In 2013, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) released a report that it could not find "credible scientific evidence" to support the link between the military pollutants and the poorer health of Vieques residents. These findings by ATSDR have guided governmental policies in the past several years regarding decontamination of Vieques.

It is important to clarify what ATSDR really found in its studies. ATSDR does not argue that Vieques is not contaminated. It recognizes the EPA studies that identify the presence of carcinogens at toxic concentrations. It also does not argue that the health of the people of Vieques is not deplorable, much worse than the rest of Puerto Rico. What ATSDR argues is that it did not find "credible scientific evidence" that there is a direct link between the toxic environment in Vieques, and the poor health of its citizens.

As a professor and a scientist at Yale University, finding credible scientific evidence is what I do for a living. In science, lack of evidence to support a hypothesis is called "negative data." Negative data can be misleading if studies are not conducted correctly.

I respectfully encourage you to consider the following example as an analogy: If one visits Connecticut in the middle of the summer and does not find snow, one would lack credible scientific evidence that it snows in Connecticut. But, it would be due to poor sampling. In this case, it is due to sampling during the wrong season. And it would be ridiculous to conclude that it never snows in Connecticut or to base policies on that negative data.

ATSDR studies in various localities, including Vieques, have been criticized by the scientific community and lambasted in Congressional hearings and reports. Among the criticisms are observations by numerous independent researchers regarding how ATSDR studies have been poorly designed, and how the agency's cavalier and perfunctory conclusions have been inconsistent with federally mandated standards. Indeed, many scientists and others believe ATSDR scientific studies are "inconclusive by design" and call into question the scientific rigor, or lack thereof, of ATSDR findings (see, for instance, the studies and testimony of my colleague at Yale University, Dr. John Wargo, on the topic).

These flawed findings are used to guide management practices that further disperse pollutants, gratuitously exposing the vulnerable population of Vieques and the rest of Puerto Rico to additional and unnecessary health risks, and have been used by some to help turn a blind eye to the responsibility the federal government has to address the health crisis it created.

As a scientist, I urge you to reflect upon the data -- the deplorable, and undeniable health outcomes of the people of Vieques; the environmental, man-made disaster created by over 60 years of continuous bombings of the island with weapons including napalm and depleted uranium -- and act decisively to address this environmental and health crisis.

It is long overdue. Indeed, as a presidential candidate in February 2008, you publically pledged the following:

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.

Twelve years have passed since the Navy left Vieques and seven years have passed since you made that pledge, which the people of Puerto Rico trust that you will still fulfill.

On Earth Day, we will celebrate the planet that we co-inhabit, reflect on the environmental issues that afflict it and that afflict our health. Earth Day is also my three daughters' birthday -- I am the father of triplets, and they will turn five years old this year.

May your actions this month establish a legacy of evidence-based environmental justice that protects future generations of American and world citizens, including the generation of our respective daughters. A very concrete example, and one that is long awaited, is for you to provide for adequate and prompt environmental restoration and urgent and proper attention to the health crisis in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

I could not think of a better gift for the generation of our daughters and a better sense of justice for the people of Vieques, who have suffered way too much for way too long.