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For the Future of Vieques, Look to Hawaii


June 16, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

SAN FRANCISCO -- For decades the Navy strafed the island with gunfire. Ordnance exploded on windswept hills and bright blue reefs. After a lengthy political struggle that included arrests and illegal occupation by activists, islanders got what they wanted. The Navy stopped bombing and withdrew from the land.

This is not the story of Vieques, the island off Puerto Rico, but rather of Kahoolawe, Hawaii, a 45-square mile island about seven miles off Maui's coast. What happened there serves as a cautionary tale. Indeed, the controversial White House decision to order the Navy to stop bombing Vieques in 2003 could be the first spark in a long battle over how to restore the land.

During World War II, despite Kahoolawe's status as a sacred place to Hawaiians, the Navy commandeered the island for live-fire training for its Pearl Harbor fleet. Evidence of ancient cultures, from stone temples to one of the region's largest troves of adzes, tools used to trim wood, dotted the island. Many artifacts were over 1,000 years old, preserved for centuries under wild grasses and brush.

In the 1970's, Hawaiian activists organized as the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana began protesting the shelling. In 1976, some staged a daring dawn raid to occupy the island. Seven were arrested, but two eluded capture and hid out on the island for three days. By 1980, the courts granted Hawaiians permission to visit the island for spiritual services, roughly once a month. The island was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. Finally, in 1990, President George Bush issued an executive order that stopped the bombing.

But the conflict didn't end. In 1993, Congress agreed to finance a 10-year Navy cleanup, but activists complained that the job should have gone to a more experienced branch of the military, like the Army Corps of Engineers.

It took five years for the cleanup even to begin. Circumstances unique to the island slowed the pace; hundreds of workers had to be transported onto a rocky shore without a dock or landing strip. The island's iron- rich natural soil made metal detectors an impractical way to find buried bombs. Instead, each small swatch of land had to be tediously examined by a procession of surveyors, archaeologists, brush cutters, surface sweepers and bomb technicians.

Local people complained that the Navy had squandered much of the $400 million cleanup budget on expensive helicopter transports. The Navy countered that Hawaiians took too much time building a consensus on how best to restore the land.

By 2000, the Navy had cleaned only one-tenth of the island and had to scrap its initial plan to clean not only the entire island's surface, but also one-third of the subsurface. Today, the Navy projects it will clear two- thirds of the surface and small areas of the subsurface by 2003, when Congressional financing runs out. The money will be gone, but the bombs won't. The grand plans for a cultural and historic park on the island have been drastically curtailed.

In 2003, the same year the Navy withdraws its cleanup operation from Kahoolawe, it will stop firing on Vieques. The bombs may well fall silent on that island after decades of struggle, but their echo is sure to haunt Puerto Ricans for years.

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