Residents of the small island of Vieques say that rates of cancer on their island are abnormally higher than on the nearby main island in the US Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico, the result, they say, of 60 years of being used as a bombing range, using ammunition such as depleted uranium, currently undergoing UN testing over health scares in the Balkans (see related story). Medical reports dating from 1990-94 showed that cancer rates among the 9,300 Viequenses were 27% higher than on the Puerto Rican mainland, though local doctor, Dr Rafael Rivera-Castao, says the figure is now 52% more than on the principal island. Residents are now seeking $100 million in health damages from the US Navy. They also say that the navy’s testing inhibits the development of the island’s economy.

A former Director of the Pentagon’s Depleted Uranium Project and one of the authors of the US’s programme for the remediation of former test defence sites, Professor Doug Rokke, has also expressed concern over the US Navy’s use of Vieques for many years as a training and test ground for military munitions. “It is imperative that complete environmental remediation of all affected terrain and medical care be provided for all affected residents of Vieques,” he reportedly said. Rokke has also criticised the violation of the “requirements of the Navy’s radioactive materials by firing depleted uranium munitions which specify that depleted uranium ammunition is to be used strictly during combat or approved tests and are prohibited from peacetime or training use”.

“For years we have denounced the relationship between the military contamination and the exaggerated levels of cancer on Vieques,” said Nilda Medina, of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques. “The heavy metals and other chemical components from explosives dangerous to human health, combined with the radioactive uranium projectiles, jeopardise the life of Viequenses today, as well as future generations.” In 1999, a Vieques inhabitant was also mistakenly hit by a misdirected US Navy shell.

Following calls for action, ex-President, Bill Clinton, agreed to a referendum on the navy’s presence on the island to be held in November. The two possible options are: the continued presence of the navy on the island until 2003, with the continued testing of dummy ammunition, or a permanent presence, including testing of live rounds. However, a new survey of islanders shows that almost 90% want an immediate withdrawal, a view supported by Puerto Rico’s new governor, Sila Calderon, who has already threatened to hold an earlier, rival referendum and believes noise from testing has also led to an usually high rate of heart disease.

In light of this criticism, just before leaving office, Clinton instructed defence officials to find alternatives to training exercises on Vieques, but the navy has said that the island offers the only terrain suitable for its military exercises. It also says that no scientific study has linked navy activities on Vieques to any civilian health issues on the island.

It is not the first time that US governmental activities in US Commonwealth territories have courted controversy. Last year, inhabitants of Saipan, part of the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, alleged gross negligence and violation of federal laws over toxic waste dumping (see related story).

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