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Islanders Take On US Navy: Puerto Ricans Seek Damages For Cancer Rates

By Matthew Chapman on Vieques

February 4, 2001
Copyright © 2001 BBC NEWS. All Rights Reserved.

The residents of a Caribbean island used as a bombing range are claiming more than $100m in damages from the US Navy over claims that ammunition including depleted uranium (DU) shells have caused an epidemic of cancers there.

More than a third of the 9,000 inhabitants of Vieques have been found to be suffering from a range of serious illnesses and cancers, which doctors have linked to decades of bombing by the US and the military of other countries including the British Royal Navy.

According to official Puerto Rican figures, cancer rates on the island are soaring, with the numbers of people suffering from cancer of the breast, cervix and uterus up by 300% over the past 20 years. The court case brought by the islanders will be closely watched by the governments of Nato countries which sent troops to Kosovo and the Gulf War where the use of DU shells has been linked with leukaemia cases.

The island of Vieques is just 30km long and 6km wide and lies within sight of mainland Puerto Rico. For the past 60 years its population has been sandwiched into a strip of land in between some of the world's busiest bombing ranges.

Campaigners on the island made an order through the Freedom of Information Act to force the Navy to publicly admit it had fired DU shells onto a range on the eastern tip of the island in 1999. The Navy said this was done by mistake after the wrong ammunition was loaded onto a fighter jet and they made efforts to recover the radioactive shell casings afterwards. But, they they only managed to find around 50 of them.

Scientists, however, who have conducted soil samples on the ranges say they have found evidence of systematic bombing with DU shells going back at least a decade.

A Mississippi-based law firm John Arthur Eaves, which specialises in class action law suits involving industrial pollution, has brought together 3,600 islanders suffering from illnesses it says are linked to the decades of bombing on Vieques and the use of DU shells.

"I think $100m may turn out to be at the lower end of the scale of what we might get from the Navy," John Arthur Eaves Jnr said. "We have already spent $7m on preparing this case which we wouldn't have done if we didn't think we had a very good chance of winning."

One of the plaintiffs on the island is father-of-two Rolando Garcia, who is only 32 but looks nearer 50. His test results show him to be contaminated with a bewildering range of heavy metals, the most worrying to him being uranium. "I had never heard of uranium before this," he said, "but now it looks like it might kill me." He thinks he may have been exposed when he worked on the bombing range itself, maintaining military buildings. Every hair on his body has dropped off and he now walks in slow shuffling steps, making a tremendous effort just to cross his living room.

Yet there are others on the island showing high levels of uranium in their bodies who have never been on the bombing ranges themselves. They are thought to have picked up heavy metals blown off the bombing ranges by the strong easterly winds which regularly sweep across this island. Although the Navy maintains that several hundred DU shells would not be enough to constitute a health hazard, scientists claim to have found signs of far greater use of the ammunition.

"They say the shells were used on target tanks on one particular spot on the bombing range," said Jorge Fernandez, an environmental expert on the mainland of Puerto Rico. "But when we made soil samples we found nine separate spots, all over the hundreds of acres of this bombing range, which showed significant levels of uranium." Campaigners also claim to have identified target tanks dating back as far as 1991 which contained shell holes characteristic of the DU ammunition's ability to burn smoothly through armour rather than rip it apart like conventional ordnance.

The US military as a whole has maintained that there is no evidence to link the use of uranium in weaponry to any illnesses among troops. "Stories of cancers and illness are just part of a campaign of misinformation by those opposed to our presence on the island," said US Navy Commander John Carerra. "We are talking about very small amounts of depleted uranium and we have done our utmost to make sure it is cleared away."

You can hear more on this story on the The 5 Live Report: Shell Shocked broadcast at 12 noon on Sunday 4 February on Radio 5 Live and repeated on Saturday 10 February at 20:35.

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