Vieques, Puerto Rico – At first glance, Vieques appears to be a Carribean paradise. The small island located less than 13km off of mainland Puerto Rico is home to stunning, undeveloped beaches with shimmering turquoise water.
Wild horses roam the tranquil, winding streets. Tourists from all over travel to take glowing night time kayak rides in the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world.
But there is a darker, lesser-known story of Vieques that I explored in my latest episode of AJ+’s Direct From. It involves the legacy of US militarism, which has left much of the island contaminated and its residents sick.
From the 1940s until 2003, the US Navy used Vieques as a training ground for war, pummeling the island with bombs as it conducted military training operations.
For decades, munitions, including 900kg bombs were fired from ships, jets, helicopters and tanks, all while the island’s civilian population of roughly 9,000 lived just a few kilometres away.
The Navy has admitted to using napalm, depleted uranium and a host of other toxic chemicals and heavy metals on the island. And while its training officially ended in 2003, the fallout from its six-decade presence is far from over.
What was once a Navy range is now a federal wildlife refuge. Ironically, it is simultaneously a Superfund site, a toxic area identified for cleanup by the government.
Much of the wildlife refuge remains off-limits because of remaining unexploded ordnance. There are signs everywhere warning visitors not to stray off the permitted path due to the risk of stepping on an explosive.
So far, only about 1,600 of the 4,000 hectares (4,000 of the 10,000 acres) suspected of having munitions have been surface cleared, according to EPA representative Daniel Rodriguez, who is overseeing the cleanup.
That does not include what remains underground and in the water. The Navy anticipates the cleanup will take another 10 years on land, and 15 to 20 years underwater.
The method of the cleanup is another source of contention. The Navy is employing a technique called open detonation, essentially getting rid of old bombs by blowing them up.
Although they say the method is safe to the public’s health, locals insist otherwise.
Myrna Pagan, a longtime Vieques resident who survived uterine cancer, but lost her husband five years ago to a total metastasised cancer, told me that her husband’s “problem with the heavy metals was arsenic and uranium”.
Pagan said she also has an issue with uranium.
“Everybody in my family that was tested for heavy metals came positive at high levels,” she said.
Such health issues are not unique for the people of Vieques. Cancer rates among residents are disproportionately higher than the rest of Puerto Rico.
Getting basic health services is a challenge, as the island has long lacked adequate health infrastructure, including specialised doctors.
This means sick residents are forced to take a ferry to the main island to get treatment.
To make matters worse, flooding from Hurricane Maria shuttered Vieques’s main hospital in 2017.
The people of Vieques accuse both the federal government and their local government of long-standing neglect, describing their small island as “a colony of the colony” of Puerto Rico.
In the latest series from Direct form, I ask: Is the US Navy going about the cleanup in the safest way possible?