NRDC, Labor, Civil Rights Groups Sue Navy Over Vieques Operations

Coalition cites high disease rates and Military-caused pollution on the island

NEW YORK (May 17, 2000) – Citing environmental hazards as well as high cancer and infant mortality rates on Vieques Island, a coalition of environmental, labor and civil rights groups -- including NRDC -- say they will sue the U.S. Navy for violating U.S. laws during years of exercises on its training range there.

The suit will ask a federal court to require the Navy to cease activities that contribute to environmental hazards at the training range, and to clean up pollution caused by years of mock warfare and beachfront bombings on the inhabited island.

Plaintiffs in the suit include NRDC; 1199/SEIU New York’s Health and Human Services Union; and several Vieques-based groups and individuals. The groups have filed formal notice stating their intent to sue in U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico. The groups’ notice of intent to sue includes civil rights as well as environmental claims.

The Navy recently announced its intention to resume training on the island after ejecting protesters who had occupied the training range. Military operations on the island were suspended last year after a bombing accident at the Naval base in which a local resident was killed.

"The Navy’s operations at Vieques Island have been an environmental and social disaster without any redeeming military benefit," said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., NRDC senior attorney. "The Navy would never dare impose these burdens on residents of the continental United States. The idea that there is a national security issue involved here is ridiculous," he continued.

To bolster his argument that the Navy’s operations on Vieques are unnecessary to national defense preparedness, Mr. Kennedy cites retired Navy Rear Admiral Eugene J. Carroll, Jr. of the Center for Defense Information, an advisor to the plaintiffs, who has stated that the kind of exercises undertaken there have been obsolete for decades, and have no strategic importance to the U.S. or its allies.

According to the plaintiffs, environmental hazards at the Vieques Naval training site include unexploded ordinance, residual toxic contaminants and heavy metals from exploded ordinance, and radioactivity from munitions manufactured from spent uranium. The groups bringing suit claim that these hazardous materials -- dangerous enough in the island’s soil -- would be re-suspended in the air if practice runs, even with "inert" bombs, were to resume.

Although EPA granted the Navy a permit for discharges of munitions to waters off Vieques Island in 1984, the plaintiffs claim that the Navy consistently violated the toxic contamination limits specified in the permit. In addition, they say, the Navy’s operations at the site violate federal laws requiring proper disposal of solid and hazardous wastes, water pollution regulations, the endangered species act, and ocean dumping regulations.

Vieques Island is home to several resident endangered animal and plant species -- including hawksfill and leatherback turtles -- that inhabit areas directly in the path of military activities. Other endangered species there include manatees; brown pelicans; and the colbana negra, a rare species of tropical evergreen.

The plaintiffs in the suit are represented by Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, NRDC, Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, and Puerto Rican attorney Celina Romany.

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