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The navy’s latest tests with inert bombs and shells on Vieques island off the coast of Puerto Rico ended on 1 May despite protests from US Congressmen and attorneys and the US territory’s governor. Medical reports dating from 1990-94 have showed that cancer rates among the 9,300 Viequenses are 27% higher than on the Puerto Rican mainland, though a local doctor says the figure is now 52% more which locals say is a result of 60 years of firing ammunition such as depleted uranium-tipped bombs (see related story). In addition, new study conducted by the University of Georgia says found destruction to coral reefs from bombing activity on Vieques.

“We have discovered the existence of thousands of barrels and compressed gas cylinders sunk onto the coral reefs of Vieques,” said James W. Porter, Professor of Ecology at the University of Georgia. “We have now demonstrated that toxic substances are leaking from the underwater bombs, and that this toxic material is now found in living marine organisms on the reef. The containers are rusting and are fragile, but some are still intact. This sensitive environmental area lies within the bombing impact area, with the consequence that even so called ‘green’ munitions can break them open. The risks posed to human and environmental health by any further disruption of this site are unacceptable.”

Sila Calderón , the governor of Puerto Rico, under whose jurisdiction Vieques falls, called for a permanent halt to all military exercises on the island on 1 May and launched a federal lawsuit against the US Navy and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for violation of new noise laws, brought in solely to stop the bombings. Since the latest tests began, at least 180 people have been arrested in protests, including the Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez and environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In addition, both New York’s governor, George Pataki, and Senator Dick Durbin, a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defence have called for a permanent halt to all Vieques tests.

However, the navy, which on 1 May also relinquished control of 8,000 of a total 20,000 acres it has on Vieques, almost four-fifths of the island’s total area, said that the range provides unique training that saves lives in combat, and denies the islanders’ allegations of higher cancer rates.

The relinquished land has passed to the joint control of the municipality of Vieques and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, with the navy spending $40 million in infrastructure improvements. Vieques residents are to vote in November on whether the navy should stay or leave by May 2003. However, even if the navy is voted out, bombing will be allowed to continue until the day of leaving, when the remaining 12,000 acres will pass to the control of the US Fish and Wildlife Service

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