Fish, Wildlife, and Bombs: The Struggle to Clean Up Vieques

September 1, 2009

In May 2003, after hundreds of arrests, marches, and constant pickets, mass protest forced the U.S. Navy off Vieques, Puerto Rico.1 Since World War II, the navy had maintained one of its key military installations in the Western Hemisphere on this 51-square-mile island, located six miles off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico. Yet Vieques was also home to 10,000 U.S. citizens who lived sandwiched between an ammunition depot and a military training area. The navy test-fired both land-based and naval artillery, as well as small arms. It rehearsed amphibious landing exercises, parachute drops, and submarine maneuvers. The navy bombed Vieques from air, land, and sea. In the 1980s and 1990s, the navy trained an average of 180 days per year and dropped or fired an average of 1,464 tons of bombs and explosives annually on Vieques.2 In 1998, the last year before protest interrupted maneuvers, the navy dropped 23,000 bombs on the island, most of which contained live explosives.3

After six decades of intensive military training, residents are preoccupied with cleaning up the island. Dangerous levels of cadmium and lead appear in the island’s crabs. Lead is concentrated in pasture grass grazed by horses and cattle. Ordnance occasionally washes ashore. Such contamination from heavy metals, and other toxins poses major environmental and health concerns. For example, the island’s cancer rate is 27% higher than the rest of Puerto Rico, raising troubling questions about the military’s toxic legacy and its short- and long-term impact on islanders’ health.

Cleanup, however, has been stymied. When the navy left Vieques, the majority of its 18,000-acre landholding was transferred to the U.S. Department of Interior, designated a wildlife refuge, and put under control of the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. Fish and Wildlife’s stewardship of this vast expanse of former base land has created a paradoxical situation in which the same terrain that was bombed 180 days a year, that is littered with both spent shells and live bombs, that is pockmarked with bomb craters and toxic-waste sites, is now officially a “wildlife refuge.” The most devastated terrain, the 980-acre live impact area, is officially designated as a “wilderness preserve” and blocked from public access.

The base land’s designation as a wildlife refuge was a decision based more on politics than environmental concerns. Legally, cleanup of unexploded ordnance and other military waste is determined by projected land use. Land designated for “conservation use” requires only a superficial cleanup, since presumably no humans will inhabit it. The wilderness designation to the live-impact range, bombed 60 years, has less to do with maintaining the quality of the ecosystem than with evading responsibility for environmental remediation. Land inhabited by pelicans and sea turtles, simply put, is not a national priority for cleanup.

Historically, many National Wildlife Refuges in U.S. and its territories—for example, Cabeza Prieta in Arizona and the Johnston Atoll and Midway Islands in the Pacific—were once military ranges, sites for military production or weapons testing, or bases. While the media often celebrate the creation of new parkland and the return of land to nature, the politics of these land transfers demands scrutiny.

By the terms of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which Congress invoked to reserve the Vieques bombing range as a refuge, a wilderness area should appear “to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable” and have “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” No part of the Wilderness Act describes the contemporary Vieques landscape.

Not surprisingly, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has become the lightning rod for local resentment. Residents see the department as acting as the navy’s handmaiden, blocking access to land for which residents have struggled for decades and cleanup of contamination. Rather than appreciating Fish and Wildlife’s “protection” of the environment, many residents resent the agency as the island’s most recent usurper. They see the mandate to protect former base land as an extension of restrictions and absolute control over the land established by the navy.

“Fish and Wildlife has everything in Vieques,” declared Pito Delarme, a 39-year-old construction worker. “Now you can’t collect coconuts and crabs, you can’t fish, you can’t collect anything!” Delarme bristled at Fish and Wildlife’s efforts to protect Vieques from everyday human activity, after 60 years of unimpeded destruction. “When the navy was here, where were these laws? The navy destroyed the coral, they killed the turtles, the fish, the crabs, contaminated the land—all of this destruction and [Fish and Wildlife] never stopped them for 68 years. And now we want to develop this part of Vieques well, and we’re not permitted.”

Fish and Wildlife officials have protested that the Department of Interior never wanted Vieques land, and that it was imposed on them by Congress. Nevertheless, Fish and Wildlife’s custodianship of the land prevents the cleanup that residents desire. Military contamination behind the barbed-wire fences of the refuge will remain unaddressed as long as its land use is designated for endangered birds and turtles, rather than for humans.


The military used the western and eastern sides of Vieques very differently, and their contrasting contamination and cleanup issues today reflect this. In the west, where the navy maintained an ammunition depot and a small operational base, cleanup is connected to the storage and disposal of munitions. Almost 2 million pounds of military and industrial waste—oil, solvents, lubricants, lead paint, acid, and other refuse—were disposed of in different sites in mangrove swamps and sensitive wetland areas. A portion of this waste contained extremely hazardous chemicals. One 200-acre site was used to detonate and burn excess and defective munitions.4

The navy initially identified 17 different sites where it would investigate contamination and remove munitions lying on the surface (without cleaning up solvents or toxins leaching into the soil or buried ordnance). By March 2005, however, the military committed itself to further assessing and exploding ordnance on the surface of only three out of the 17 sites. Nine of them required “no further action,” the navy argued, and five supposedly contained only minimal contamination, posing no significant risk.5 In a controversial move, the navy also argued that much of the toxic contamination in Vieques did not, in fact, originate from military activity, but rather from naturally occurring geological processes.6

The military’s resistance to cleaning up the relatively limited amount of contamination on the western “clean” side of Vieques indicates how contentious the cleanup process in the east may become. Cleaning up the 14,573-acre eastern side of the island, used for naval firing exercises and maneuvers since the 1940s, is much more dramatic in scope. The point of the most intense destruction is the live-impact range, about the size of New York City’s Central Park, on the island’s eastern tip. Most unexploded ordnance in Vieques is concentrated in this easternmost former target area, yet some ordnance is likely to have strayed off target and into adjacent land, beaches, and water. In addition, land-based maneuvers involving live-fire exercises took place in different locations in the east, making it unclear how extensive the spread of munitions is outside the live-impact area.7

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, extensive unexploded ordnance and remnants of exploded ordnance remain in this range and its surrounding waters. “Hazardous substances associated with ordnance use may include mercury, lead, copper, magnesium, lithium, perchlorate, TNT, napalm, and depleted uranium among others,” an EPA report notes. In addition, at both the former marine base, Camp Garcia, and the small naval base in western Vieques, “hazardous substances present may also include a range of chemicals such as PCBs, solvents, and pesticides.”8

A 2000 EPA report found that most former firing ranges have significant contamination. The survey discusses widespread health dangers at 206 closed, transferred, transferring, and inactive military ranges. It concludes that “contamination resulting from used or fired munitions including UXO [unexploded ordnance] is found on almost all ranges. . . . UXO has been found on 85 percent of the ranges and chemical or biological weapons are known to exist or are suspected at over 50 percent of the ranges. The risks from contamination resulting from ordnance use are widespread. Ranges in this report potentially pose significant risks to human health and safety because of their proximity to growing surrounding populations.”9

On February 11, 2005, the EPA responded to then Puerto Rican governor Sila Calderón’s request to identify Vieques as a Superfund site, which places cleanup of hazardous sites under federal authority. Under the Superfund law, the EPA is responsible for identifying parties responsible for waste sites and compelling them to clean up hazards. Priority is established by the threat that the toxic waste in question poses to human health and the environment. This caveat is crucial for Vieques because the extent to which island residents are barred access to the former base land reduces their contact with hazardous sites and lets the military off the hook.

However, establishing that people have been exposed to contamination, even without having stepped foot in the former naval areas, could legally compel the military to clean up its waste. Such exposure would most likely come from drinking contaminated groundwater or eating contaminated fish or shellfish.10 In fact, an international tribunal found in 2000 that the groundwater in Vieques has been contaminated by nitrates and explosives.11 Moreover, two studies suggest that toxic heavy metals have entered the Vieques food chain.12 The first study documented high levels of lead, cobalt, nickel, and manganese in violin crabs and in plants near the Vieques impact area. The second study found that vegetables and plants growing in some civilian areas of Vieques are highly contaminated with lead, cadmium, copper, and other metals.

In a major setback to community groups, however, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the lead federal public health agency responsible for determining human health effects associated with toxic exposure, announced that it found no toxic contamination in Vieques.13

The agency’s findings of no significant contamination—after more than 60 years of live-fire exercises and given the fact of drastically increased cancer rates—outraged community members, who found this conclusion at odds with common sense. Indeed, research data suggests a correlation between the onset of live bombing exercises in the 1970s and the escalation of cancer rates in Vieques.14 In this context, ATSDR’s findings stood out as remarkably convenient for the navy.

In May, however, a congressional investigative report on formaldehyde-contaminated Katrina trailers lambasted ATSDR’s pronounced tendency to “deny, delay, minimize, trivialize or ignore legitimate health concerns.” The report found that ATSDR colluded with FEMA to declare the trailers safe. In the course of the hearings, the Vieques case was introduced as another example of ATSDR’s misconduct and bias in favor of polluters. In response, the EPA has pledged to reopen its investigation on Vieques.

If and when Vieques is adequately cleaned up, it will be an extremely dangerous, expensive, and challenging task.15 Over time live ordnance sinks, requiring cleanup crews to remove both surface and subsurface soil to remove it. Munitions with depleted uranium—fired on the range in violation of federal law—can sink hundreds of feet because of their mass and the force of the large guns that fire them. Enormous amounts of soil must be removed to recover lost depleted-uranium rounds.16

Cleaning groundwater is also difficult and expensive. Subterranean water must first be located under thousands of acres of land, which is in itself a difficult process, then pumped to the surface, cleaned with scrubbing devices, and returned to the ground.17 Coral reefs and sea grass beds have been significantly damaged by bombing, sedimentation, and chemical contamination.18 And even though numerous bombs lie off the shores of Vieques, cleaning the water is outside the purview of military requirements.


While residents struggle for access to land and cleanup of contamination, they contend with another battle related to the federal wildlife designation: gentrification. Although little has changed in the material conditions of the municipality since the navy’s departure, its exit has removed the principal obstacle to development and triggered wild speculation. Investors seeking out homes and land that can be developed and resold for substantial profit have driven up housing prices, and sales in beachfront neighborhoods have soared. By cordoning off former base land, the wildlife refuge has effectively attracted off-shore capital that is displacing working-class residents from the island. Thus residents are doubly excluded, both by the refuge and the real estate frenzy that it stimulated.

Although Vieques had changed very little, local brokers and outside interests seized on the former bombing range’s new status as a wildlife refuge to aggressively market the island as an undiscovered tropical paradise. North American investors are largely enthralled by the creation of a new national park in the Caribbean and the possibility of buying a relatively inexpensive piece of “paradise.” One striking indicator of the island’s rapid gentrification was a listing in The New York Times Escape section featuring a three-bedroom house with guesthouse for sale in Vieques for $2.5 million. The owner was quoted as saying: “We love the beach, we love the Caribbean. Vieques, though, is very different from many of the other islands. Two-thirds of the island is a wild preserve, and there are a lot of beautiful beaches with no development—that’s what is special to us.”19

When asked what he thought of the influx of North Americans to Vieques, Leonardo Velázquez Maldonado, 70, a retired bank manager and lifelong resident, quipped, “I’m happy to have Americans here. I say, welcome to Vieques! Come share our contamination with us!”

Claudio Encarnación Solís, a 60-year-old former laborer and artist, puzzled over the seeming indifference of North American investors to health concerns. “Their interest in acquiring land and money affects their minds,” he said. “Those who don’t have to worry about cancer can concentrate on palaces, development, and factories. [The North Americans] don’t worry about health. For us viequenses, who are experiencing this crisis and illness, we are preoccupied not with money but with health. You have to have good health first to be able to enjoy everything else.”

Faced with multiple challenges posed by environmental contamination, the wildlife refuge, and gentrification, islanders continue to rely on social mobilization to hold the military and state accountable for cleanup and sustainable development. Since 2003, activists have organized numerous acts of civil disobedience, including marches and setting up encampments on restricted beaches in eastern Vieques, demanding that the federal government clean up the area and return it to residents.

These acts of civil disobedience have had a demonstrable effect on the cleanup process. The navy initially devoted itself to removing ordnance only from the western side of Vieques, a smaller, more manageable operation than addressing the catastrophic mess in the east. Protesters’ continued defiance, however, in entering into restricted eastern lands, demonstrated that the land was meant to be used by people, not just pelicans. This forced the navy to shift gears and begin cleaning up in the east. In addition, activists’ continued opposition to the open detonation of ordnance in the cleanup process forced the EPA to set up an air-monitoring station.

As Vieques residents struggle for access to land and participation in local decision making, they confront broader questions of political authority, control over natural resources, definitions of common property rights—in sum, the rights and privileges of citizenship. The struggle of Vieques remains fundamentally about unequal power relations between the United States and Puerto Rico and the island’s lack of sovereignty. As Vieques residents demand a voice in the future of the island, however, as they struggle for accountability and environmental remediation, they lay the groundwork for self-determination.

Katherine T. McCaffrey teaches anthropology at Montclair State University. She is the author of Military Power and Popular Protest: The U.S. Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico (Rutgers University Press, 2002).

1. This essay is based on long-term ethnographic and documentary research in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Portions of this essay are drawn from Katherine T. McCaffrey, Military Power and Popular Protest: The U.S. Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico (Rutgers University Press, 2002) and McCaffrey, “The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Vieques, Puerto Rico,” in David Carruthers, ed., Environmental Justice in Latin America: Problems, Promise and Practice (MIT Press, 2008).

2. Vice Admiral (ret.) John Shanahan and John Lindsay-Poland, “Vieques: Is It Needed by the Navy?” Vieques Issue Brief (Fellowship for Reconciliation, Winter 2002).

3. U.S. Navy, Commander, U.S. Second Fleet, “National Security Need for Vieques,” July 15, 1999.

4. See Lirio Márquez and Jorge Fernández Porto, “Environmental and Ecological Damage to the Island of Vieques Due to the Presence and Activities of the United States Navy” (Special International Tribunal on the Situation of Puerto Rico and the Island Municipality of Vieques, 2000). Also, “Resumen de estudios y datos ambientales en Vieques” (Universidad Metropolitana, New Jersey Institute of Technology, y el Centro de Acción Ambiental, 2000).

5. David Bearden, Vieques and Culebra Islands: An Analysis of Cleanup Status and Costs, Congressional Research Service Report (Library of Congress, 2005), 14.

6. John Lindsay-Poland, “The Long Struggle for Cleanup,” Puerto Rico Update (Task Force on Latin America & the Caribbean, August 2003).

7. Bearden, Vieques and Culebra Islands, 15.

8. Environmental Protection Agency, “Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Area—Vieques,” National Priorities List,

9. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, “Used and Fired Munitions and Unexploded Ordnance at Closed, Transferred, and Transferring Military Ranges. Interim Report and Analysis of EPA Survey Results” (April 2000).

10. Beardon, Vieques and Culebra Islands, 2.

11. Márquez and Fernández Porto, “Environmental and Ecological Damage.”

12. Arturo Massol Deya and Elba Díaz, “Biomagnificación de metales carcinógenos en el tejido de cangrejos de Vieques, Puerto Rico” (Casa Pueblo de Adjuntas y Departamento de Biología del Recinto de Mayagúez, Universidad de Puerto Rico, 2000); “Metales pesados en la vegetación Dominante del area del impacto de Vieques, Puerto Rico” (Casa Pueblo de Adjuntas y Departamento de Biología del Recinto de Mayagúez, Universidad de Puerto Rico, 2000).

13. “A Summary of ATSDR’s Environmental Health Evaluations for the Isla de Vieques Bombing Range” (ATSDR, November 2003).

14. Cruz María Nazario, Erick L. Suárez, and Cynthia Pérez, “Análisis crítico del informe incidencia de cáncer en Vieques del Departamento de Salud de Puerto Rico” (Río Piedras: Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Ciencias Médicas, 1998).

15. David Sorenson, Shutting Down the Cold War: The Politics of Military Base Closure (St. Martin’s Press, 1998).

16. Ibid., 83, n. 174.

17. Ibid., 81.

18. Márquez and Fernández Porto, “Environmental and Ecological Damage”; also, Caroline S. Rogers, Gilberto Cintrón, and Carlos Goenaga, “The Impact of Military Operations on the Coral Reefs of Vieques and Culebra,” report submitted to the Department of Natural Resources (San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1978).

19. Amy Gunderson, “Houses With Outdoor Showers: The Simplest Luxury,” The New York Times, May 20, 2005.


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