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US rattles Puerto Rico with bomb site cleanup plan

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The U.S. government has a new fight in Vieques, the Puerto Rican island that was used as a Navy bombing range for decades.

An extensive cleanup of the eastern portion of Vieques is years from being finished, but the government says it is ready to declare work completed on a nearly 400-acre site on the western side that was used to store and detonate expired munitions.

The former storage site was turned over to the U.S. Interior Department and declared a nature reserve. Under a proposal favored by the Navy, the cleanup of the area would be deemed complete even though about 200 acres has not been cleared of munitions debris, some potentially still live.

That has sparked outrage among activists and officials in Vieques and the main island of Puerto Rico who favor a complete removal of all debris. And it has brought back some of the angry rhetoric that helped force an end to Vieques' use as a bombing range in 2003.

"It's not a cleanup. It is an affront to Puerto Ricans that those responsible for the explosives would refuse to remove them," Maria de Lourdes Santiago, a vice president of the Puerto Rico Independence Party and a candidate for the U.S. territory's Senate, said Thursday.

Navy officials say it would hurt the nature reserve by tearing up the dense vegetation to clear the remainder of the debris.

Opponents suspect the plan may have more to do with the cost of cleaning up all the debris, estimated at $50 million.

Jorge Fernandez Porto, director of the territorial Senate's natural resources commission and a member of a citizen advisory board that monitors the Navy cleanup of Vieques, said he fears a partial removal of debris will set a precedent for other parts of the island.

"You found this clean, you can't just give it back full of bombs," Fernandez said. "I'm sorry if it's costly. You should have thought about that before. Now you want to do the cheap version and leave the bombs there."

A public comment period on the proposal ends Friday, at which point it will be under review by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Before the area became a nature reserve, the military would dig open pits and burn expired 20-milimeter rounds, and occasionally unexploded rounds were scattered in the surrounding brush.

Under the plan favored by the Navy, the area that has not been cleared of munitions debris would be enclosed by a barbed-wire fence to prevent people from scavenging for potentially explosive scrap metal and souvenirs, said Kevin Cloe, a manager of the cleanup project.

Other parts of the reserve would be open to the public, but the entire area has long been designated as a natural reserve and the government never intended for the public to have full access, Cloe said.

Trying to clear the entire area would do extensive damage to site, he said.

"It's a balancing act. There are no silver bullets. It would be great if we could turn over the island, shake out all the bad things ... but this is a labor intensive, very destructive operation," he said.

Vieques, which is ringed by clear blue waters and pristine beaches that have made it a popular tourist destination in recent years, was used as a bombing range from the 1940s until the government agreed to give it up in 2003 after years of angry protests.

The U.S. has removed more than 16.5 million pounds of munitions, but the cleanup of the old bombing range on the island's eastern portion is expected to run through at least 2025. The full cleanup of Vieques, one of the most extensive rehabilitation efforts ever undertaken by the Navy, is budgeted at around $350 million.