Washington, DC—U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Charles Schumer and Congressman Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, led a bipartisan group of Senators and House Members urging U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to fulfill its responsibilities regarding the cleanup of the islands of Vieques and Culebra, which were used as military training ranges for many years. The cleanup of Vieques is being conducted by the Navy, while the cleanup of Culebra is being carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“The citizens of Vieques and Culebra have been waiting for too long to learn what munitions were used on their islands and they deserve answers,” said Senator Gillibrand. “I will continue to push to expedite the pace of clean-up efforts and ensure that it be completed properly.”
“The military should be doing a better job of cleaning up the toxic mess they left at both Vieques and Culebra in order to keep the environment and people safe,” saidSenator Schumer. “I will continue to put pressure on the Navy and the Army Corps until cleanup in these jewels of Puerto Rico is expedited and completed.”
“This letter represents the latest step that I and my colleagues in Congress are taking to address the legacy of the use of Vieques and Culebra as a military training range,”Congressman Pierluisi said. “We have worked tirelessly to secure justice for the people of Vieques and Culebra, and we will not rest until all of these issues have been satisfactorily resolved.”
The letter makes three specific requests.
First, although it has been a decade since the military stopped conducting training exercises on Vieques and nearly 40 years since the military stopped conducting training exercises on Culebra, there are still meaningful gaps in information about the types and amounts of munitions used on both islands, as well as unanswered questions about potential links between these past exercises and current public health conditions.
As a result of efforts by the Resident Commissioner, Senator Gillibrand and Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida, the congressional report accompanying the recently-enacted Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act encourages the Department of Defense to make public all of its historical documents related to its training activities on Vieques and Culebra.
Second, as a result of the efforts of the Resident Commissioner and Congressman José Serrano of New York, the congressional report accompanying the Fiscal Year 2014 Defense Appropriations Act encourages the Department of Defense to accelerate cleanup efforts on Vieques and to keep Congress informed regarding its cleanup progress.
Finally, the letter reminds the Department that there is a serious public safety threat in Culebra that requires prompt resolution. As a result of a rigid legal interpretation by the Department, the Department has refused to fund the cleanup of the Northwest Peninsula, which includes parts of Flamenco Beach, other popular beaches, pedestrian walkways and campgrounds.
The Resident Commissioner, working closely with Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Senator Gillibrand, have filed multiple bills and amendments to require the Department of Defense to fund the cleanup of the Northwest Peninsula and to remove this public safety threat. The letter urges the Department to drop its opposition to these legislative efforts.
In addition to Senators Gillibrand and Schumer, Pierluisi’s letter is signed by Senators Blumenthal and Robert Menendez. The Members of the U.S. House who signed the letter are Reps. Grayson and Serrano, as well as Reps. Charles Rangel of New York, Don Young of Alaska, Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Nydia Velázquez of New York, Donna Christensen of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia, Eni Faleomavaega of American Samoa, and Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Full text of the letter is below:
Dear Secretary Hagel:
We write regarding Vieques and Culebra, two island municipalities in Puerto Rico that were used as military training ranges for many years and are now being decontaminated by the Department of Defense. The cleanup of Vieques is being conducted by the Navy under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program (DERP), while the cleanup of Culebra is being carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pursuant to the Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) program.
Although it has been a decade since the military stopped using Vieques for training purposes and nearly 40 years since the military stopped using Culebra for training purposes, there remain meaningful gaps in information about the types and amounts of ordnance used on both islands, as well as about potential links between the past exercises and present threats to public health. We trust you share our view that the 3.6 million U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico—particularly residents of Vieques and Culebra that were required to sacrifice so much for our national security—have a compelling interest in knowing, with a reasonable degree of precision, which weapons were employed (and to what degree they were employed) in these two jurisdictions.
To this end, and as a result of bicameral efforts, the joint explanatory statement accompanying the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act encourages the Department of Defense to provide documents prepared by the Department in connection with its military and cleanup activities in Vieques and Culebra to the public. SeeP.L. 113-66, Joint Explanatory Statement, pages 548-49. Therefore, we request an update from the Department about how it intends to implement this congressional language, and strongly urge the Department to collect, organize and publish the relevant documents on the Internet in a single location and in a user-friendly format. This would demonstrate the Department’s commitment to transparency.
In addition, we take this opportunity to emphasize that Congress, in the Joint Statement of Managers accompanying the Fiscal Year 2014 Defense Appropriations Act, encourages the Department to accelerate cleanup efforts on Vieques and to keep Congress informed regarding its progress. See P.L. 113-76, Joint Statement of Managers, page H618. We urge the Department, in preparing its annual DERP budget, to program the amount of funding necessary to complete the cleanup of Vieques as expeditiously as possible.
Finally, we note that there is a serious public safety threat in Culebra that requires prompt resolution. The Department has interpreted a 1974 law (Section 204(c) of P.L. 93-166) in order to deny federal funding to decontaminate a 570-acre parcel in Culebra—approximately 400 acres of which were conveyed to the government of Puerto Rico in 1982—that constitutes the former bombardment zone. As a result of this legal interpretation, Culebra is the only former defense site—of several thousand across the United States—that the Department contends it is barred by statute from decontaminating. The current state of affairs poses a direct threat to human safety, since this parcel includes popular beaches, pedestrian walkways and campgrounds.
In 2011, Congress directed the Department to conduct a study to assess the amount of unexploded ordnance remaining on the 400-acre parcel, the risk it poses to safety and the environment, and the cost of its removal. The Department reported that, since 1995, there have been 70 incidents in which members of the public encountered unexploded munitions that could have caused grave harm. Indeed, since the report was transmitted to Congress, there have been additional incidents. In March 2013, a young girl visiting a Culebra beach suffered burns after she picked up an artillery shell containing white phosphorous. And, in January of this year, local authorities were required to close the same Culebra beach when a 100-pound unexploded bomb was discovered underwater close to shore.
In the last several years, the Department has consistently opposed congressional efforts to repeal or relax the relevant provision of the 1974 law, thereby frustrating attempts to eliminate this public safety threat. We urge the Department to reverse its position.
Thank you for your attention to these important matters, and we look forward to your response.