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Culebra Cleanup Remedy On Track to Become Law

Legislation to require the Department of Defense to decontaminate and remove  military munition debris from the Northwest Peninsula of Culebra is poised to become federal law.

Culebra is an archipelego near the main island of Puerto Rico which was inhabited first by the Carib, then by the Taino, and at last in the 1800s by European settlers and pirates. In the early 1900’s, Culebra became a U.S. Navy installation in under President Theodore Roosevelt, who also established a bird sanctuary there.

The Navy used Culebra as a bombing practice site and gunnery range for over seventy years until 1973, when the U.S. Congress called for the abandonment of Culebra by the Navy and the movement of the military operations to Vieques.

In 1982, the federal government conveyed over 900 acres of land on Culebra to the government of Puerto Rico for public use.  The conveyed land includes about 400 acres on the Northwest Peninsula that the U.S. Department of Defense has contended are ineligible for federal funding otherwise authorized for land decontamination due to a provision in the 1973 law.    The Department contends that Culebra was not included in a 1986 federal law that requires decontamination of its former military sites.

“As a result of this restrictive legal interpretation, the Northwest Peninsula is the only former defense site—of several thousand across the United States—that the Department of Defense contends it is barred by statute from decontaminating. The status quo poses a threat to human safety, since this area of Culebra is visited by over 300,000 people a year and yet contains unexploded bombs that could cause grave harm,” said Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner.

Pierluisi introduced legislation to rectify the problem five years ago.  More recently, the Pierluisi proposal was included in the House of Representatives version of National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 (NDAA).  Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced a related proposal as an amendment to the Senate version of the legislation, which was approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee by a vote of 20-6.  The final legislation was released yesterday.

Section 317 of the NDAA removes the ambiguity over the 1973 law with respect to Culebra.  The bill explicitly notes that “[i]t is the sense of Congress that certain limited portions of the former bombardment area on the Island of Culebra should be available for safe public recreational use while the remainder of the area is most advantageously reserved as habitat for endangered and threatened species.”

The NDAA is expected to pass Congress and be signed into law by President Obama before Christmas.


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