Hidden Health Crisis: Vieques Seeks Its Day in Court

04/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Vieques is a small island with a big problem. And the Obama administration is fighting to keep it that way.

A municipality of Puerto Rico just a few miles east of the main island, Vieques has the lamentable distinction of being the venue of six decades of training exercises and weapons testing by the U.S. Navy. Starting around the outbreak of World War II, our military has tested all manner of munitions there, from napalm to depleted uranium to Agent Orange. It has also released immense quantities of jet fuel, flame retardant, and other toxic substances. The place is contaminated.

Not surprisingly, Vieques's 9000 residents -- American citizens by birth -- are a sickly bunch. Cancer rates are 30% higher than they are on Puerto Rico's main island. In the case of diabetes, that figure is 41%; for hypertension, nearly 400%. And roughly 80% of residents test positive for heavy metals like lead, mercury, and arsenic in their hair.

The Navy left in 2003 due to public pressure, but it hasn't cleaned up the mess and still refuses to pay victims' health care bills. So the victims are now filing suit. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is taking the Navy's side, though, and insists Vieques residents have no standing to sue at all. By invoking the legal notion of "sovereign immunity," which says the government is above the law, the DOJ is trying to keep the case out of court. Federal attorneys know that if a jury heard this case on the merits, the Navy wouldn't stand a chance. Justice, sadly, would have to be done.

That justice isn't being done already is itself a scandal. We wouldn't be abandoning our fellow Americans if this kind of contamination befell, say, Nashville. Or Topeka. Or Sacramento. Or New York. The people of Vieques, however, are poor, powerless, and -- yes -- brown. That makes them easy to ignore. The Obama administration is brushing off Vieques because it can.

But what if it couldn't? What if thousands of Americans contacted the DOJ and demanded justice? What if public pressure forced the Obama administration to give some semblance of help to the people -- the Americans -- that our Navy spent 60 years poisoning?

Something like that is starting to happen. CNN has reported on this issue the last two nights (video here), giving the residents of Vieques a bit of momentum. To keep the momentum going, there's a way you can help, too. Go here and click "Take Action" to ask Attorney General Eric Holder to let the islanders' lawsuit proceed.

I myself plan to spend this coming summer in Vieques to help organize the island's churches and residents. No matter what happens with the lawsuit, the folks there will need medical help, and I'll be working with a group called the American Values Network to make sure it arrives. This issue has moved me, and I want to do what I can.

In the meantime, let's hope the Obama administration has a change of heart (or at least of political calculus) and decides to allow Vieques residents to have their day in court. That's the island's best chance to get relief -- and justice -- so long denied.