Toxic Chemicals at Vieques: Is U.S. Accountable?

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Brennan Linsley / AP

Heaps of destroyed military hardware at a processing area of the former naval training range on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, 2008

When Hermogenes Marrero was in Marine boot camp, he recalls being the only recruit who didn't panic during simulated-chemical-warfare drills. "I'd sit there calmly with my gas mask on," Marrero says, "while a lot of other guys got scared and ran away." It was 1969, and Marrero, a New Yorker born in Puerto Rico, was fresh out of high school at the age of 17. But his composure caught the eyes of Marine instructors — and the next year, he says, he was at Camp Garcia on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, helping guard for 18 months chemical agents being tested by the U.S. Navy.

Today Marrero, at 57, believes he was too poised around those hazardous materials for his own good. In an affidavit filed last month in the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico, where Marrero now lives, he says he is legally blind, uses a wheelchair, has battled colon cancer and chronic pulmonary illnesses, and was recently diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, among other ailments. "I've been sick in some form or another since I was 25," says Marrero. He was stationed on Vieques, he adds, "for too long."

Most Vieques residents — who, as Puerto Ricans, are all U.S. citizens — would agree with Marrero. In 2007, more than 7,000 of them filed a federal suit, Sanchez v. United States, claiming that in the nearly 60 years after World War II that the Navy used a portion of the island as a firing range and weapons-testing ground it negligently exposed Vieques' population of 10,000 to dangerous levels of toxins. The community, according to several independent medical studies, has a cancer rate 30 times higher than that of Puerto Rico's main island to the west. The U.S. Justice Department has filed a motion to dismiss the suit, which collectively seeks health and property damages in the billions of dollars, claiming the Federal Government's sovereign immunity. A federal judge in San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital, is expected to make a ruling this fall.

One thing the judge is waiting for is a deposition from Marrero, which the former Marine sergeant is scheduled to give next week (though Marrero is not actually party to the suit). Lawyers for the Vieques plaintiffs say his testimony lends credence to their assertions about the long-term effects of living on the 55-sq.-mi. (88 sq km) island during the last half of the 20th century — and about the federal health and environmental laws they allege the Navy violated. "His coming forward offers proof," says John Eaves Jr., a Mississippi lawyer representing the Vieques residents. "These are things the Navy has to answer for." The Pentagon refers questions about the suit to lawyers at the U.S. Justice Department, who are handling the case for the Defense Department. They say they can't comment on pending litigation. But in their dismissal motion, they cite similar Vieques cases earlier this decade in which judges upheld the claims of sovereign immunity.

Marrero says his job at Camp Garcia from 1970 to 1972 often entailed helping Navy officers test hazardous airborne chemicals on animals like goats. Many of the canisters he handled, he says, were labeled "112" for Project 112, a top-secret Cold War U.S. military program conducted between 1962 and 1973 that involved experiments with chemical and biological weapons. Project 112's records were finally declassified at the start of this decade, but the Pentagon as yet does not acknowledge a link between the chemical tests and the spate of illnesses suffered since then by servicemen like Marrero, who is still fighting to get his veteran's medical benefits. "I'd always ask how safe that stuff was and those Navy chemical guys always told me, 'It's safe, you'll be O.K., kid,' " Marrero says. "But I wasn't, and I'm not."

The Navy's half-century on Vieques was a controversial chapter in U.S. military history. Protests erupted after a stray bomb fired during a Navy training exercise killed a local security guard in 1999; a few years later, the Navy closed Camp Garcia and left for good in 2003. By then it was already conceding things it had long denied — such as its use of toxic materials like Agent Orange and depleted uranium. It also admitted that on at least one occasion, during a chemical-warfare drill in 1969 for a project called SHAD — for Shipboard Hazard & Defense, which was part of Project 112 — it had sprayed trioctyl phosphate, a chemical compound known to cause cancer in animals, as a simulant for nerve agents. When the Navy left, the island was declared a federal Superfund site for environmental cleanup. The Navy has cleared thousands of undetonated bombs and turned its area of the island into a fish and wildlife refuge.

Still, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) said in 2003 it found no negative effect on health from the Navy's decades on Vieques. Much of the scientific community howled at that verdict, given that independent studies of hair, vegetation and other local specimens indicate island residents have been exposed to excessive levels of lead, mercury, cadmium and aluminum. "The [ATSDR] conclusion seemed borderline criminal," says former Vieques mayor Radames Tirado, a plaintiff in the Sanchez suit who says at least 13 of his relatives there today have cancer. Says Arturo Massol, a biologist at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez, "We've also found that since the Navy left, those contaminants have decreased eightfold. That's no coincidence."

As a result, Congress this summer sent the ATSDR back to Vieques to begin a review of its earlier findings. "If there is anything more we can do, it will be done," ATSDR director Howard Frumkin pledged on a visit to the island last month. The Navy itself had already realized it had more to do, setting aside an additional $200 million last year for seven more years of Vieques cleanup. Still, Viequenses complain the Navy is exacerbating the problem by detonating left-over bombs; the Navy insists it is the only safe way to dispose of them.

Marrero, meanwhile, says he spends much of his time today volunteering to help Iraq war veterans apply for their own benefits. "One of my jobs at Camp Garcia was to gauge the wind direction during those tests," he says. "If the wind ever shifted toward the population, I'd shout, 'Cease fire!' "