Legislation released late yesterday to fund the federal government for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2015 includes $17 million for the cleanup of Vieques and $1.4 million for the cleanup of Culebra. The report accompanying the proposal also requires the Department of Defense in more detailed language to enhance cleanup operations of these two island municipalities, which were used as military training ranges for many years.
“The Navy will use this year’s funding to ensure that certain beaches and land areas are fully cleaned and made available for public access, including areas in western Vieques, the historic lighthouse and nearby beaches at Puerto Ferro, and the water and land areas around Playa La Chiva, often referred to as ‘Blue Beach.’ These areas have been prioritized and munitions removal is planned to support public access as soon as possible,”announced Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s lone delegate to Congress.
“Moreover, the Navy continues to clean up the former ‘open burn pit’ area on the western end of Vieques where the Navy once safely detonated bombs. Once the area is cleaned, the land—which will include roads, hiking trails, parking areas, a picnic area, a nature observation tower, beach access, and permitted hunting and land crabbing—will be open for public use,” added Resident Commissioner Pierluisi.
The report accompanying the proposal directs the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of the Army to report to Congress with details of their cleanup operation proposals. The report also recognizes that there are gaps in information about the types and amounts of munitions that were used on Vieques and Culebra, and requires the Army and Navy to submit a joint report to Congress with this historic data to guide the nature and scope of future clean-up decisions.
Cleanup efforts in Culebra are expected to be further enhanced in future years due to the inclusion of a provision in related legislation expected to become law soon—the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015—that requires the Corps of Engineers to decontaminate the publicly-accessible areas on Culebra’s Northwest Peninsula.
The U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate are expected to approve the comprehensive funding bill later this week.
Vieques and Culebra have often been viewed as part of the Puerto Rico status issue. As former Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero-Barceló (D-PR), explained in testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee in 2000, “[v]ieques could never have happened if the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico were not disenfranchised under our present territorial status, which we euphemistically call “commonwealth”….Congress can run away from it, but in the end, it cannot hide from its constitutional duty to define a status resolution process.”
President Clinton expressed a similar sentiment in a press conference the same year in which the following exchange took place:
Question: [D]o you believe in your heart that Puerto Rico’s colonial status is the root of this problem [the local discontent with Navy bombing and military exercises on the island] or is [it] related to Puerto Ricans’ ambivalence to issues of national security?
President Clinton: I think the root of the problem [includes] the unwillingness of the Congress to give a legislatively sanctioned vote to the people to let them determine the status of Puerto Rico….I want the people of Puerto Rico to decide this….I wish they could decide their status. If it were just up to me, if I could sign an Executive order and let them have a sanctioned election, I would do it today.
Editor’s Note: This story was amended on December 11 to add historical context.