- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2001

A series of studies this year cast doubt on charges that the Navy's practice bombing on Vieques island causes health problems for residents.
The studies concluded that the Puerto Rican island's water supply was not contaminated by the live-fire exercises, nor were there ill-health effects from the use of depleted uranium ammunition in 1999. Meanwhile, the U.S. Public Health Service continues to study cancer rates on Vieques, after a limited analysis found a slightly higher rate among the island's 9,000 residents compared with Puerto Rico's 3.8 million citizens.
Congressional proponents of keeping the range open are citing the studies to refute Democratic Party claims that the 60-year-old range poses a health hazard to the residents of Vieques.
On the other hand, range opponents cite homegrown studies in Puerto Rico that concluded the bombing practices cause a variety of health problems.
President Bush last month overruled the Navy brass and handed a victory to protesters by deciding that the Navy must leave the island by May 2003. His policy shift leaves in limbo a federal law that mandates a Nov. 6 referendum that would allow Vieques' 6,400 registered voters to decide whether to keep or evict the Navy.
Mr. Bush wants the law repealed, but range backers such as Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, vow to retain the legislation. Mr. Inhofe and Navy admirals view Vieques as a crucial training ground for Atlantic Fleet carrier battle groups before they leave on dangerous deployments to the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf.
Liberal Democrats have led the protests to kick the Navy out. Despite Mr. Bush's compromise, Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe issued a statement last week linking the range to health problems.
"Many experts believe that the military exercises that take place on Vieques may be the reason that the island's residents suffer from higher illness and mortality rates than the rest of Puerto Rico," Mr. McAuliffe said. "The bombing of Vieques has gone on too long and done too much damage. The time for it to end is now, and the Democratic Party will not stop until it does."
Studies to date have looked at four issues:
* Water contamination. The U.S. Public Health Service's Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR) tested the island's public drinking water supply and private wells.
"The public drinking water supply is not being impacted by the bombing range activities and is safe to drink," the agency reported.
The agency also found that water from virtually all wells was safe. The small exception was one private well that contained high levels of nitrates. The contamination, the report said, "is probably a result of agricultural or septic systems in the area," and not from the bombing range.
* Radiation. Some protesters claim that the Navy's one-time use of depleted uranium anti-armor rounds from an attack jet resulted in higher than normal levels of radiation.
But a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) investigation found that "the levels of radiation detected in soil, vegetation and water by the NRC investigators are consistent with normal radiation background levels and do not represent a public health hazard."
* Heart disease. Range critics claimed the noise from periodic bombings caused thickening of the heart muscle, or vibroacoustic disease. A local Puerto Rican medical school did a study that backed that claim.
But a follow-up study by the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health and School of Medicine rebutted those findings.
"Within the constraints of the data available, no inference can be made as to the role of noise from naval gunfire in producing echocardiographic abnormalities," the university concluded.
* Cancer rates. Based only on raw data complied by the Puerto Rican government's cancer registry, Vieques has a slightly higher rate of the disease per 100,000 people per year than Puerto Rico's average.
But Bill Johnson, legislative director for Rep. James V. Hansen, Utah Republican, says no conclusion can be drawn from that fact. He said the data compare the cancer rate of a 9,000-person island with rates for the entire 3.8 million-person territory, a process that can produce skewed numbers.
The raw data also show that both the Puerto Rican and Vieques cancer rates are well below the U.S. average.
The U.S. Public Health Service is now reviewing the information and will file a report later this summer.

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