Limits sought on Navy bombing range

But Puerto Rican leaders say presidential panel does not go far enough

September 21, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Navy should vacate its World War II-era bombing range off Puerto Rico in five years and until then curtail its bombing and gunnery practice by up to 50 days a year, according to the recommendations of a presidential panel.

But the findings of the four-member panel, expected to be released soon, are being rejected by Puerto Rican leaders, who say the report does not go far enough. They are bitterly opposed to any more bombing on tiny Vieques Island, where a security guard was killed in April by an errant 500-pound bomb from a Marine Corps fighter jet.

"That is not acceptable," said Carlos Romero-Barcelo, Puerto Rico's nonvoting House delegate, adding that he may join protesters who are occupying the temporarily closed firing range. "We are united in purpose to have the Navy stop bombing on Vieques."

But conservative members of Congress fear that closing the island will harm America's combat readiness. An alternative site is yet to be found, they say, and the loss of the range will dull the fighting edge of U.S. combat forces.

"It's not acceptable to me, either," said Sen. James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Armed Services readiness subcommittee, who has scheduled hearings for tomorrow on the need for the Navy range. "Unless we find a reasonable alternative, we should not abandon the range -- at all."

Since the early 1940s, the Navy has used Vieques as the sole firing range for its ships and aircraft on the East Coast.

Besides pitting top military officers against Puerto Rican leaders, the issue has spilled into domestic politics, where Puerto Rican officials on the island and the mainland are pressing Vice President Al Gore and expected New York Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton to side with them.

Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rosello, a top Gore fund-raiser, told reporters last month that the vice president had assured him that an alternative to Vieques would be found. But a Gore spokesman said later that the vice president is only pushing for a solution.

Mrs. Clinton, who angered leaders in New York's substantial Puerto Rican community by opposing clemency for 16 Puerto Rican terrorists, has said she is awaiting the results of the Vieques panel.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen was briefed last week by members of the Vieques panel, headed by Assistant Defense Secretary Francis M. Rush, which will call on the Navy to cut back its bombing days from 180 per year to about 130 or 140, according to sources familiar with the report.

Moreover, the Navy should vacate the western third of the island being used for weapons' storage, according to the presidential panel, and provide economic development aid and health studies for islanders who believe they have been affected by the bombing. The island's cancer rate exceeds that of the main island of Puerto Rico.

It is uncertain when Cohen will brief President Clinton, who will make the final decision on Vieques, a 54-square-mile island eight miles off Puerto Rico and populated by 9,300 people. The Navy owns two-thirds of the island.

From World War II Pacific assaults against the Japanese to bombing attacks in Yugoslavia this spring, U.S. troops prepared on the live-fire range at Vieques. The deep water and lack of busy ship and aircraft lanes make it an ideal place for combat training, Pentagon officials say.

Residents of Vieques have long complained about the bombing noise, pollution and what they see as callous treatment by the Navy. In April those long-standing frustrations erupted into bitterness and protests when a Marine Corps F-18 accidentally dropped a bomb nearly two miles from its target, killing a security guard and injuring four others.

Navy Secretary Richard Danzig ordered the live-fire range temporarily closed, and it was soon inhabited by dozens of protesters, including some Puerto Rican lawmakers. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson has promised to fast and pray with protesters if the Navy resumes firing.

In June, Clinton appointed the four-member panel. The next month, Danzig released the findings of a separate Navy panel, which said that Vieques was vital to national security and should be retained.

Still, the Navy report said the number of bombing days could be reviewed for "consolidation and reduction." Some training could be moved to other ranges in the continental United States, it added.

The Navy also said that after reviewing 18 alternate sites, none could meet its criteria for a firing range. But Vice Adm. Diego Hernandez, a member of the president's panel, charged that the Navy purposefully made its requirements so rigid that only Vieques would meet them.

One source said that after the presidential panel's report is released, officials will "put heat" on the Navy to find a new firing range. But Navy officials and lawmakers such as Inhofe wonder whether an alternative can be found.

Inhofe also said he would introduce legislation to close the Navy's Roosevelt Roads supply base on Puerto Rico -- which provides hundreds of jobs and pumps $300 million annually into the economy -- if Vieques closes.

Yesterday, the Navy said that unless the battle group of the carrier USS Eisenhower can take part in live-fire training by December, it will have "a significantly reduced state of combat readiness."

Despite the national security concerns, Puerto Rican lawmakers such as Romero-Barcelo say they won't abide another day of bombing.

"I can't think of anyone on Puerto Rico who would accept that," said Flavio Cumpiano, a Washington lawyer representing the Committee for the Rescue and Development on Vieques.

Some in Congress are siding with the people of Vieques. Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, has introduced legislation that would give Puerto Rico control over the Navy lands, saying that "it's time to return this tiny island to its people."

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