Briefing On Judicial Fairness For Vieques
The following is an edited transcript with highlights from the VIRTUAL BRIEFING ON JUDICIAL FAIRNESS FOR VIEQUES, a conference call hosted by the American Values Network on May 27, 2009 to provide an update on the situation in Vieques, Puerto Rico.
- Robert Rabin, Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques
- Myrna Pagan, Committee member, cancer survivor, and Viequense
- Dr. John Wargo, Prof. of Environmental Risk Analysis and Policy, Yale University
- Flavio Cumpiano, Advisor, Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques
- John Arthur Eaves, Esq., Eaves Law Firm
- Radames Tirado, Former Mayor of Vieques
Community and Environmental Clean Up Update by Robert Rabin, Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques:
(Robert Rabin begins his presentation by discussing CH2M Hill, the engineering firm overseeing the cleanup in Vieques)
. . . We have, over the past several years, very strongly spoken out against one of the strategies being used by this corporation [CH2M Hill] and the Navy which is open detonation of unexploded ordnance. There are thousands and thousands of unexploded bombs on the beaches and the mangrove lagoons and the sand and among the coral reefs in Vieques left over from half a century of U.S. military bombing and NATO bombing from ships and jets and tanks and bazookas, etc. Now the Navy more recently has petitioned to burn hundreds of acres of contaminated vegetation on the eastern end of Vieques, the ex-bombing range. And, unfortunately, the Puerto Rican Environmental Quality Board has given them the green light. We’re waiting for the EPA to make a decision. The Vieques Legislative Municipal Assembly, that is the local government, voted against the open burning, voted against this project of burning hundreds of acres on the east end of Vieques. Obviously the concern is the winds blow exactly from the east to west here in Vieques. Before the contaminants from the bombing would come to us and now contamination from open detonation of unexploded bombs and obviously from the burning of vegetation will come to us. The Navy argues that they need to burn these hundreds of acres of contaminated vegetation to be able to more easily see the bombs that they want to clean up. We believe this is a seriously dangerous strategy to be using. I’d also like to mention that this past Sunday we had a wonderful workshop here over 50 people from the community with experts from the University of Puerto Rico’s Health School and chemists from the University of Puerto Rico to talk about the dangers of this burning of the vegetation and other aspects of the military contamination. . .
Myrna Pagan, a long time Committee member, cancer survivor, and Viequense:
I am a longtime resident of Vieques. When I say long, I mean long; 50 years of my life I have spent here. I am also a cancer survivor from a cancer which I know was caused by the contamination of the Navy activities here in Vieques.
In the eight years since I was diagnosed, I have lost so many Vieques friends to cancer that I truly cannot count them on two hands. We know that if you become a cancer victim this year in Vieques, you have a 27 percent possibility of dying from your cancer. Twenty-seven percent more than the rest of Puerto Rico. In my immediate neighborhood right now, in the three houses – one neighbor to either side and myself in the middle – two cancer deaths, and one cancer survivor. For about 18 years we were doing a newspaper here called The Vieques Times and our main mission was in keeping tabs on the Navy activity. It so happens when there were four of us working on the paper, three of us had cancer. That’s three out of four. The numbers are mind-boggling. And then I come to fact that I’m also a grandmother, a grandmother of nine. Seven of my grandchildren, all here in Vieques, suffer from asthma. Two of the grandchildren were born with rare genetic conditions. I believe that my family medical history establishes a clear link between the Navy bombing and contamination.
Now, by request of an American expatriate, called Gordon Rumore, several years ago ATSDR came to do a study on Vieques to see what the possibility was for a link between Navy activity and Vieques’ health situation. I remember that the findings were that there was no link. The work done in Vieques by ATSDR was a real farce. This island is called Crab Island in its history. ATSDR could not find the crabs necessary for their testing, so the Navy supplied ATSDR with the crabs for the testing. I also remember specifically that fish specimens which were tested were purchased frozen from a local fish market. Now if that doesn’t smell like a farce. . . The thing is that it’s totally infuriating because the findings have been taken as veritable fact, when we know that those findings were not done in an honest way and the findings are not true of our situation. Our island has no industries. Our island has no traffic jams. Our island has no serious contamination source except for that U.S. Navy activity.
We know what has condemned us to bad health. We also know that we have a right to good health. We don’t want to condemn the new generations coming up to this history of non-responsive action – no responsibility taken by the people who have caused our problems. Thank you very much for your interest in helping the people of Vieques. Naturally, we wish you the best of luck because our future is truly in your hands as far as the Navy responsibility and acceptance is concerned. Thank you.
Scientific Presentation by John P. Wargo, Prof. of Environmental Risk Analysis and Policy, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies:
I am a professor at Yale and I specialize in environmental risk assessment. And I particularly concentrate on women and children’s exposure to toxic substances, and have spent a good deal of time on Vieques looking at the problem and also studying other sites in different parts of the world. And I’ll open by giving you my professional opinion, which is really a scientific opinion, that the east end of Vieques is one of the most contaminated sites in the world. And it also enjoys the paradox of being classified both as a Superfund site as well as a designated U.S. wilderness area.
One of the things that I have been concerned with has been to think about plausible routes of exposure to more than 100 million pounds of chemicals that have been released on the east end. And the most plausible routes of exposure include air contaminants from bombing and, as Robert Rabin eloquently described, because of the east to west direction of the winds bomb fragments would be blown toward the population centers on the island. It’s also worth remembering that for decades, while the bombing was going on, lands in close proximity to the range were leased for grazing purposes, for dairy particularly. So there’s an air to land to food chain route of exposure that probably was active for decades.
The current interest in food-based exposure is predominantly associated with fish. The dietary intake of fish among islanders is highly diverse and quite variable, with some people consuming many, many times the estimate that the Food and Drug Administration has come up with and also that the ATSDR relied upon for their exposure assessments. And what that means is the more you eat of a particular contaminated type of fish then the higher your body burden will be. So both air exposure and fish exposure are, I think, the most important routes of exposure to think about.
The prospect of the Navy burning the vegetation on the east end is, I think, is potentially dangerous. One would have to conduct studies of the plant material and the concentrations of chemicals in the diverse species growing on the east end before any claim of safety associated with that open burning could be substantiated. And, you know, frankly, the same goes before open detonation should be accepted. I know of no testing that is being done of movement of the smoke that results from that testing, whereas independent scientists should certainly be monitoring air quality to discover the direction of movement of these remnants from the bombs that are being exploded, and their pattern of deposition.
I’m in the process now of analyzing contaminants in hair from samples collected several years ago. And there are numerous examples where concentrations of elements that are recognized to be toxic and also were released by the Navy on the east end of the island are above what’s called a reference dose or a common range among healthy individuals. So it’ll be a while before those results are done, but I am to the point of recognizing that it’s not uncommon for individuals to be carrying residues of chemicals that we know were released in the bombs. And, in some cases, samples from children and women of child-bearing age contain several different chemicals recognized as toxic.
So, I stand ready to help with the science and risk assessment in any way I can. And I’m deeply committed to find a way to make the Navy accountable for what I think is just reprehensible behavior. Thank you.
Update on Vieques and the ATSDR by Flavio Cumpiano, Advisor, Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques:
. . . Between 2001 and 2003, the ATSDR [the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry] conducted four public health assessments in Vieques, testing the water, the air, soil quality as well as fish and shellfish. Their results, in November 2003, were not a surprise. As Dr. Wargo very well explained and has explained in his critiques of the four public health assessments, the results were flawed, biased, selective and simply inadequate. The agency’s conclusion that the toxic legacy left by the Navy in Vieques posed no threat to human health is simply baseless. . .
Last year, the House Committee on Science and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, held hearings and issued a report on the ATSDR’s scientifically flawed and misleading work on the public health assessments that the agency conducted concerning formaldehyde levels in the trailers provided by FEMA to victims of Hurricane Katrina and Rita. The Congressional oversight over the agency’s mishandling of what was called the “toxic trailers,” led members of Congress and Subcommittee staff to come up with several other instances of the ATSDR’s massive failures, including Vieques. . .
The Subcommittee again held hearings on March 12, and it heard testimony about ATSDR studies in different communities. Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida made a statement about the ATSDR and Vieques. For the sake of time, it’s on youtube so I encourage you to access it (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vv4pvbENHb0&feature=channel_page). Later in the hearing, Congressman Rothman forced the ATSDR director, Dr. Howard Frumkin, to publicly agree to reexamine the issue and to take a fresh look at the situation in Vieques. This of course was very encouraging, especially after years of having the agency and the Navy say that there was no real evidence of any real serious effect stemming from pollution in Vieques. . .
To wrap up, I’ll just say that there has been a request made to the Chairman of the Subcommittee, Brad Miller, by Congressman Grayson and by Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, for field hearings in Vieques and the recent focus on the ATSDR by Congress has brought hope to the people of Vieques and their allies. After so many years of neglect, and a continuing health crisis as so aptly stated by Dr. Wargo, Myrna and Bob Rabin, we now see that the federal government may finally pay attention to the health situation in Vieques and do something about it. So any effort by those listening in on this call to make these field hearings a reality would be very much welcomed. Thank you so much for your attention.
Contact information for Chairman Brad Miller:
The Honorable Brad Miller (D-NC)
House Committee on Science and Technology
Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight
2321 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
(202) 225-3032 office
(202) 225-0181 fax
Legal Update – Vieques: Paradise Lost by John Arthur Eaves, Esq., Eaves Law Firm:
. . . Let me just say that it’s an honor to serve the people of Vieques. Many people ask why a Mississippi boy is working down in Vieques, Puerto Rico. And I’ll tell you that it comes from a man named Radames Tirado who you’ll hear from in a few minutes. He began to tell me about the different members of his family who had died from cancer. And what began as a simple case for me has really now become a mission.
So we started this about 10 years ago, and we started gathering information. We ended up filing at that time about 7,100 claims. And, of course, when you sue the government you have to file claims – administrative claims – before you can actually file suit. We filed those claims, and in each one of those we collected medical records, we collected medical opinions and we listed the illnesses that people had suffered, and then gave those to the Navy, giving the Navy an opportunity to do the right thing. Well as you know that was about 10 years ago. We started to acknowledge a lot of the Puerto Rican scientists and Dr. Wargo, who had already had a strong belief in the injustice on Vieques, and started collecting those reports. . .
Most recently, as of May 18, the Justice Department used sovereign immunity in our case. Now let me say that sovereign immunity is this ancient vestige of England where you cannot sue the king. Basically it stands for the king can do no wrong. The people on Vieques have suffered so much and every American in this country owes a debt of gratitude to the people on Vieques because of the losses they have suffered to make our country ready and prepared in defense. And so, because of that great injustice, we believe that it’s wrong of them to use sovereign immunity to prevent the people of Vieques from ever getting their day in court. . .
What we push for the most is that the people have an opportunity for their day in court – a right that every American should have. And this being the greatest injustice that I have witnessed during my career, the people of Vieques deserve no less. There are many things that we can do, from resolutions to raise awareness to addressing Congressional members. But at the end of the day, so many people believe that since the Navy left that the problems are gone. But we have to remind them that just because the Navy has left doesn’t mean that they haven’t left the contamination and the health crisis that is now in Vieques.
Testimonial by Radames Tirado, Former Mayor of Vieques (1976-1980):
Thanks to all the people who are here to help us in this battle to obtain compensation for the damages caused by the Navy in Vieques. . .
I think the least we can do for Vieques is to give compensation to our people to recover from the slaughter that they had to live with for over 60 years. The American people are good people, the American people are a people who are mindful of the needs of others, and the American people are a people of a great democracy. It is time that they can respond to this sense of democracy, freeing us of these ills we have in Vieques.
Cancer is destroying lives in Vieques now. I would say that every moment, every minute, one more person is diagnosed with cancer. Recently, my sister-in-law was also diagnosed with cancer. And when we have festivals and other activities to raise funds for cancer victims, you see the large number of attendees who have this terrible disease that is destroying the lives of the people of Vieques. . .
So we would like the American people to be aware of the reality of the island of Vieques. Thank God, and thanks to all those people who care greatly for us. I hope to see that we succeed in this matter. We are claiming compensation for all the people of Vieques. Thank you very much.