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02-04-07, 12:12 PM #1
Clearing Vieques is delicate, dangerous work
Clearing Vieques is delicate, dangerous work
By Andrew O. Selsky - The Associated Press
Posted : Sunday Feb 4, 2007 11:24:16 EST
VIEQUES NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Puerto Rico — One misstep on this former Navy bombing range can be fatal.
For decades, warships and planes hammered the Naval Training Range on Vieques with live rounds before it was closed in April 2003 after years of protests against the danger and the din — leaving thousands of unexploded bombs, rockets, cluster bombs and other munitions lurking under dense foliage.
About 110 contract workers are now cleaning up the site on Vieques, a speck of land with 9,000 residents eight miles east of Puerto Rico’s main island. It is dangerous work, requiring concentration, keen eyesight and nerves of steel.
The Navy began war maneuvers on Vieques in 1948 after expropriating land and paying as little as $53 an acre, subjecting those who live on the rest of the island to thunderous, window-rattling blasts. Marines practiced amphibious landings, supported by warplanes and ships.
An Associated Press reporter and photographer — the first journalists allowed onto the former bombing range since the cleanup began in August 2005 — saw bombs and other ordnance scattered over wide areas.
The eastern half of the island containing the former training site is as beautiful as it is deadly.
Ringed by beaches, tidal pools and crystalline waters, it is blanketed with munitions ranging from World War II leftovers to those still used today, including 2,000-pound bombs.
Technicians have detonated more than 3,400 munitions-related items containing 10.6 tons of explosives on the site, according to the Navy. More than 175,000 items, including bomb fragments, have been carted away.
There have been no explosives-related injuries so far during the cleanup, said Kelley Stirling, a Navy public affairs officer.
“It really gets your attention when you walk out there,” Carlton Finley, a Navy explosive ordnance disposal expert, said as he drove onto the range in an SUV with contract worker Joe Riner. “You’ve got to keep your focus, watch where you’re putting your foot, and step lightly.”
The SUV rolled past a beach pocked with 20-foot-wide craters and littered with missile fins and bombs. One bomb had hit with such force that it knifed into the earth and ricocheted upward, leaving its nose aiming at the sky. Another, stretching more than 7 feet, lay partly hidden under bushes.
“That’s an MK-82, a 500-pound bomb,” Riner said coolly.
That round might be a practice one, loaded with just enough explosive to send out smoke to mark where it landed. Or it might be a real bomb, capable of killing anyone within hundreds of feet.
“We consider every item to be high-explosive until we can positively determine otherwise,” Riner said, his jaw bulging with a plug of tobacco.
The protest against the bombing range by islanders and some American celebrities began in 1999 when a Marine jet dropped two bombs off target and killed a Puerto Rican security guard.
Cleaning the area has proved more difficult than expected, with much of the 14,500-acre site covered with tangled vegetation reaching 15 feet high. The Navy says up to 9,000 acres may contain munitions.
Officials had expected to clear 400 acres in seven months, but it has taken almost a year-and-a-half to finish just 235 acres, said Daniel Rodriguez of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the cleanup.
The area is officially a Fish and Wildlife Service refuge, but only a sliver is open to the public. The U.S. Interior Department is expected to issue a report soon outlining plans for the site — including opening some beaches — and inviting public comment, said Oscar Diaz-Marrero, the refuge manager.
Removing all the munitions could take as long as a decade, officials say. The current phase envisions clearing 1,100 acres.
Working in 100-feet-by-100-feet grids, the contractors first inspect to make sure there are no explosives that could be detonated by falling branches, then slice away smaller trees and vegetation with brush-cutting tools and chain saws.
If the brush clearers find a suspicious object, an EOD technician blows it up since it’s too dangerous to move live munitions. Once the brush is cleared, workers sweep the ground with metal detectors to find munitions or fragments.
Among the most hazardous munitions are BLU-97 cluster bombs, which eject from the rear of a canister in mid-flight and scatter over wide areas.
“This will ruin your whole day. It will reach out and touch you,” Finley said of the soda-can sized bomblet, which U.S. forces dropped in Afghanistan. “It will go off if you just look at it too hard.”
To make the cleanup safer, the Navy wants Puerto Rico to suspend a law against open burning, so the vegetation can be set ablaze. The Navy says air-monitoring stations would be installed to ensure the fires don’t release toxins into the air.
Yarissa Martinez, of Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Board, said Wednesday that her agency hadn’t received the Navy’s request and declined to speculate on whether it would be approved.
Some islanders want a moratorium on the detonations until health effects of possible emissions are analyzed.
“They should hold off until an independent scientific study is done,” said Robert Rabin, who moved to Vieques from Boston in 1980 and helped lead the protests against the bombing range.
Three monitoring boxes have been set up to gauge whether metals or other dangerous elements are being introduced into the atmosphere. None has been detected at unsafe levels. The EPA’s Rodriguez said more monitoring stations are needed near neighborhoods downwind from the range, to make sure islanders are safe.
The Navy is planning to add more monitoring boxes with EPA oversight, but the detonations are continuing because people have trespassed onto the former range and could set off bombs.
“The fact is that the risk associated by leaving those items in place outweighs any potential emissions,” Rodriguez said. “It’s more critical that the Navy continues with the removal of munitions on the surface.”
The contract workers know all too well that removing the ammo is risky, too. Before they leave for work in the pre-dawn darkness, some crew members hold a prayer session in a parking lot.
“Before we get in the van, we do a ‘Hi Almighty, here we are ... please help us,”’ said Edgar Colon, one of the brush clearers. “We put that out, you know, and after that we turn on the rock ‘n’ roll.”
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
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