AOC proposal calls for environmentally safer military cleanup efforts in Vieques, Puerto Rico

The U.S. House approved an amendment presented by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, on Thursday to allocate $10 million to use closed detonation chambers in efforts to clean up military ordnance in Vieques, a smaller island located about seven miles off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico that for over 60 years served as a bombing range and site for military-training exercises.

Vieques is the most hazardous waste site in Puerto Rico, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Since 2003, the U.S. Navy has been using open-air detonation chambers to try to clean up ordnance that contain toxins such as Agent Orange, depleted uranium and mercury. The military ordnance was left behind across 9,000 acres of the property by the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces after decades of military weapons tests.

The Navy’s Naval Facilities Engineering Command Atlantic, which is in charge of the Vieques Environmental Restoration program, considers open detonations to be “a much safer process” for site workers because they don’t have to carry unexploded ordnances to a different site. They also argue “it is the quickest and most efficient way to complete the cleanup” process.

But a report from the Congressional Research Service states that a series of “environmental concerns” exist around open-air detonation practices.

The report found that closed detonation methods such as “burn trays and blast boxes” are more effective at containing pollutants and toxic emissions during military cleanup efforts.

The language in Ocasio Cortez’s amendment encourages the U.S. government to purchase, deploy and operate closed detonation chambers to substantially reduce “the practice of open air burning and open air detonation to the lowest practicable level.”

The amendment was presented as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020 which also included another amendment presented by Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of Congress Rep. Jennifer González, R-PR.

González’s amendment puts pressure on the U.S. Secretary of Defense to explore “all the ways and alternatives to accelerate the process of environmental cleanup and restoration in Vieques.”

In a letter sent in April, 42 organizations called out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and various members of Congress for not promoting the use of safer, less harmful decontamination methods in Vieques when less polluting alternatives exist.

“To date, the Navy reports that it has open air burned or detonated more than 100,000 high explosive UXO ordnance, including bombs, projectiles, rockets, grenades and submunitions as part of its environmental remediation program,” the letter reads. “By definition, open burning and detonation result in the uncontrolled release of toxic pollutants to the environment. These toxic emissions endanger public health.”

Myrna Pagan of Vidas Viequenses Valen, a local community group, said in a statement, “The people of Vieques have denounced for decades the toxic damage this practice has produced on our community, causing a health crisis. We have no hospital in Vieques to provide health care services to the victims. The open burnings and open detonations are an attack on our human rights to health and development,” she stated.

According to Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, an associate counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a Latino civil rights organization, open-air detonations tend to be one of the cheapest cleanup practices and also one of the most contaminating.

Groups like LatinoJustice are now pushing the U.S. Senate to pass the House-approved amendments to support “a clean-up process that prioritizes the health” of the people of Vieques, according to the group.

“The Vieques Amendment passed the House and now moves to the Senate! Call your Senator to tell them that to support the Amendment and a clean-up process that prioritizes the health of Viequenses,” the organization tweeted.

If the Senate approves the amendments, then the U.S. government will provide the $10 million needed to pay for alternative cleanup methods.