Battered reefs

jo_lopez jo_lopez at
Wed May 9 07:17:33 EDT 2001

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Battered reefs blamed on Navy

Michele Salcedo
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted May 6, 2001

Sixty years of bombing and gunfire training have taken a severe toll on
one of the most exquisite coral reefs in the Caribbean, a preliminary
study by a University of Georgia ecologist and marine biologist has found.

“Each bomb dropped on, and each shell fired at Vieques creates an imminent
and substantial risk of irreparable harm to the coral reefs,” James Porter
wrote in a report prepared in 1999 for the government of Puerto Rico.

Porter headed a team of three researchers that took nine samples from five
sites, three in Bahia Salina del Sur and three from Bahia Icacos within
the Navy's bombing and gunfire range on the eastern third of the island.

The Navy has used that area of the 126-square-mile island off the eastern
coast of Puerto Rico for live bombing and artillery training since 1941.

Puerto Ricans have long been unhappy with the arrangement, but when a
civilian guard was killed in April 1999 by an errant bomb, the call for
the Navy to leave became stronger.

The government commissioned the report as it prepared to file a lawsuit
against the Navy. Instead, an agreement was reached last year with the
Clinton administration that allowed the Navy to resume exercises until
2004. The report was never used.

Vieques fishermen have long maintained that the bombing was causing damage
to the reef and unexploded ordnance was leaking toxins into the water.

But Porter's study, a copy of which was obtained by the South Florida
Sun-Sentinel, is the first scientific look at the environmental damage to
the reefs since the death of the guard.

Among evidence of “serious unnatural disturbances” to reefs:

Unexploded bombs, artillery shells and shell cases on the coral reef and
in the adjacent sea-grass bed.

Parachutes from flares and cluster-bomb fragments draped over corals and
other reef flora and fauna.

Unexploded bombs leaking materials into the coral reef and creating a
limited dead zone around the bombs.

“There is a statistically significant inverse correlation between the
density of military ordnance and several measures of reef health,
including the number of coral species, the number of coral colonies, and
the coral species diversity,” Porter wrote. “Reefs with the highest
concentrations of bombs and bomb fragments have the lowest health indices
and the lowest species diversity.”

Lt. Jeff Gordon, a spokesman for Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, could not
be reached for comment. But the deputy chief of naval operations, Vice
Adm. James Amerault, testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee last
month that the Navy removes unexploded ordnance on active and inactive
ranges “by performing surface sweeps.”

“There is increasing pressure to regulate UXO [unexploded ordnance] on
ranges more stringently than in the past,” Amerault told the subcommittee.
“We are committed to ensuring that active range operations do not present
a threat to human health or the environment off-range and see no
compelling reason to regulate munitions when used on range for their
intended purpose.”

Michele Salcedo can be reached at msalcedo at

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