Vieques, Puerto Rico Naval Training Range: Background and Issues for Congress

CRS Report for Congress
Vieques, Puerto Rico Naval Training Range:
Background and Issues for Congress
Ronald O’Rourke
Specialist in National Defense
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
This report discusses the controversy leading up to the closure of the U.S. naval
training range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, Congress’ legislation directing the
closure, and the potential impact of the closure on military training and readiness. For
a discussion of post-closure environmental cleanup issues at Vieques, see CRS
Report RL32533.1 On April 30, 2003, the Department of the Navy (DON) closed its
training range on Vieques. On March 31, 2004, as directed by Section 8132 of the
FY2004 defense appropriations act (P.L. 108-87/H.R. 2658), the Navy closed the
supporting Roosevelt Roads naval station on mainland Puerto Rico. This CRS report
will be updated as events warrant.
Background information
The Vieques Training Range. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a U.S.
territory in the Caribbean whose people are U.S. citizens. Vieques (pronounced vee-EH-
kez) is a small Puerto Rican island a few miles east of mainland Puerto Rico. The
Department of the Navy (DON), which includes the Navy and Marine Corps, purchased
the western and eastern ends of the island between 1941 and 1950; the two DON-owned
parcels totaled about 22,000 acres, or about two-thirds of the island. Almost all of the
8,000-acre western parcel, which was used primarily as a naval ammunition depot, was
returned by DON to the Municipality of Vieques on May 1, 2001. The remaining DON-
owned 14,000-acre eastern parcel was used by U.S. naval and other military forces since
the early 1940s for training exercises involving ship-to-shore gunfire, air-to-ground
bombing by naval aircraft, Marine amphibious landings, or some combination. The parcel
included a roughly 11,000-acre Eastern Maneuver Area for Marine Corps ground
exercises and a roughly 900-acre Live Impact Area (LIA) designed for targeting by live
ordnance. The LIA was at the eastern tip of the island, several miles from the civilian-
populated center section of the island, which has about 9,300 residents.

1 CRS Report RL32533, Vieques and Culebra Islands: An Analysis of Environmental Cleanup
Issues, by David M. Bearden and Linda G. Luther.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress

Until April 1999, the Navy used the Vieques training range about 180 days per year.
Of these, about 120 days were for integrated (i.e., combined land-sea-air) live-fire
exercises (i.e., exercises with explosive ammunition) by U.S. Atlantic Fleet aircraft carrier
battle groups and amphibious ready groups preparing to deploy overseas on regular six-
month-long deployments to the Mediterranean Sea or Persian Gulf. Until 2001, DON
officials argued adamantly that there was no site other than Vieques where Atlantic Fleet
naval forces could conduct integrated live-fire training operations, and that such training
operations are critical to fully preparing U.S. naval forces for deployment.
Puerto Rican Discontent and Opposition. U.S. military activities in Puerto
Rico had been a source of discontent among Puerto Ricans for several decades. Puerto
Rican opposition to DON activities on Vieques increased after 1975, when DON
withdrew from Culebra, another small Puerto Rican island near Vieques where DON had
conducted some of its live-fire training operations. After withdrawing from Culebra as
a consequence of strong Puerto Rican opposition to DON’s use of that island, DON
consolidated its live-fire training operations at Vieques. Puerto Rican dissatisfaction
regarding military training activities on Vieques was driven by several issues: (1) lost
potential for economic development due to lack of access to most of the island’s land,
interruptions to local fishing operations, and the effect of DON’s activities on reducing
the potential for developing the island as a tourist destination; (2) the inadequacy of DON
economic development efforts intended to compensate the Vieques community for this
economic loss; (3) damage to the island’s environment, ecology, natural resources,
historic resources, and archaeological sites caused by DON training activities; (4) concern
that the incidence of cancer or other diseases might be increased by pollutants released
into the local environment by DON training operations; (5) noise, especially from nearby
ship-to-shore gunfire; (6) safety (the risk of an off-range accident), and (7) perceived
DON insensitivity in conducting its relations with the Vieques community.
April 19, 1999 Bombing Accident and Subsequent Impasse. On April 19,
1999, the pilot of a Marine Corps F-18 on a training mission mistakenly identified an
observation post located just to the west of the LIA (but still well within the overall range
perimeter) as its intended target. The two 500-pound bombs dropped by the plane struck
the post, killing David Sanes Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican civilian employed as a security
guard, and injuring four others. Following the accident, DON temporarily suspended its
use of the range. The accident galvanized Puerto Rican opposition to DON’s activities
on the island. Puerto Rican political leaders and overwhelming segments of Puerto Rican
public opinion soon declared their firm opposition to any further military training
operations on the island and called for DON to withdraw from the island immediately and
return the land to Puerto Rico. At the same time, dozens of demonstrators entered the
range (most of which was off-limits to the civilian population) and established several
protest camps, preventing DON from easily resuming training activities there.
Rush Panel. On June 9, 1999, President Clinton asked Secretary of Defense
William Cohen to establish a special panel to study the situation. The 4-member panel
was chaired by Frank Rush, who was the acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for force
management policy. The Rush panel, as it was called, released its report on October 19,
1999. The report recommended, among other things, that DON
should immediately conduct a priority assessment of the training requirements at
Vieques with the objective of ceasing all training activities at Vieques within five

years. The Navy should take necessary programming actions to ensure that adequate
resources are available to facilitate the identification and preparation of alternative
locations, to institute necessary changes in training methods, and to provide for
restoration and transfer to Puerto Rico of the Eastern Maneuver Area.
Clinton-Rossello Plan. On January 31, 2000, President Clinton announced an
agreement with then-Governor of Puerto Rico Pedro Rossello on a plan for resolving the
dispute over Vieques. The plan called for holding a referendum of the registered voters
of Vieques to determine the future of DON activities on the island. The referendum,
which was later scheduled for November 6, 2001, and subsequently rescheduled for
January 2002, would present two choices. One would be for DON to cease training
activities no later than May 1, 2003; the other would be for DON to continue training,
including live-fire training, beyond that date. If voters choose the second option, OMB
would submit a $50-million funding request to Congress to finance further infrastructure-
improvement and housing projects on the western end of Vieques. Under the plan, DON
would be permitted prior to the referendum to conduct exercises on the range for no more
than 90 days a year using only non-explosive ordnance, and the Office of Management
and Budget (OMB) would submit a $40-million funding request to Congress to finance
a series of community assistance projects on Vieques. The plan also called for
transferring DON lands back to civilian use.
Removal of Protestors and Resumption of Training. On May 4, 2000, more
than 300 federal agents moved onto the training range and peacefully removed 216
demonstrators. On May 8, 2000, DON resumed training operations on the range using
non-explosive ordnance. Hundreds demonstrators attempting to reenter the range on
various dates after May 4, 2000 were detained and removed by U.S. forces.
Congressional Activity and Legislation in 1999 and 2000. Hearings
devoted to the situation on Vieques were held by the House and Senate Armed Services
Committees on September 22, 1999, and by the Senate Armed Services Committee on
October 19, 1999 (at which the Rush panel report was released). Several bills were
introduced in September and October 1999 that proposed various measures for addressing
the situation. Following the announcement of the Clinton-Rossello plan, Congress in
2000 debated the merits of the plan and acted on the administration’s request for $40
million in community assistance funding and its proposed land-transfer legislation.
Congress appropriated the $40 million in community assistance funding as part of
P.L. 106-246 (H.R. 4425) of July 13, 2000, the combined FY2001 military construction
appropriation and FY2000 supplemental appropriations bill. The FY2000 supplemental
appropriations portion of the bill (Division B) contains a provision under the Operation
and Maintenance, Defense-Wide section that provides $40 million to Vieques for
conducting a referendum and for various community and economic assistance projects.
Congress authorized the $40 million, provided land-transfer legislation (with terms
modified from those proposed under the Clinton-Rossello plan), and approved other
implementing legislation, as Title XV (Sections 1501-1508) of P.L. 106-398 (H.R. 4205)
of October 30, 2000, the FY2001 defense authorization bill. (See pages 365-373 and 879-
881 of H.Rept. 106-945 of October 6, 2000, the conference report on H.R. 4205.) Section
1502 provided for the May 1, 2001 transfer of the ammunition depot on the western end
of the island.

Position of Governor Calderon. On November 7, 2000, Puerto Rico elected
a new Governor, Sila Maria Calderon, who took office on January 2, 2001. Calderon did
not support the Clinton-Rossello plan and pledged to take steps that would appear to
break the accord.
Final Clinton Administration Actions. The Clinton Administration warned
Governor Calderon that if Puerto Rico did not fulfill its obligations under the plan, DON
would no longer be obliged to abide by the results of the November 6, 2001 referendum.
On January 15 and 19, 2001, President Clinton issued two directives concerning Vieques.
The first directed the Department of Health and Human Services to examine a new study
showing that residents of Vieques suffer from a high incidence of vibroacoustic disease,
an ailment affecting the heart and other internal organs. The second directed DoD to find
a long-term alternative to live-fire training on Vieques, on the grounds that voters were
likely to vote in the November 2001 referendum to permanently end training operations.
Initial Bush Administration Actions and Puerto Rican Response. The
Bush Administration initially supported the Clinton-Rossello plan and held private
discussions with Governor Calderon’s office. On March 1, 2000, the Bush Administration
canceled training operations for an aircraft carrier battle group that were scheduled to take
place at Vieques later that month. On April 11, 2001, the Navy notified the Puerto Rican
government of its intention to resume training operations at Vieques using inert ordnance
(as required by the Clinton-Rossello agreement) starting April 27, 2001.
In response, Governor Calderon promised to introduce legislation to tighten noise
restrictions in a way that would effectively prohibit the Navy from engaging in ship-to-
shore gunfire. She also accused the Defense Department of violating an understanding
to suspend training operations on Vieques pending the outcome of independent reviews
of studies on the health-effects of the training. Calderon introduced the bill and the
Puerto Rican Legislature passed it on April 23. Governor Calderon signed the bill into
law, and on April 24, Puerto Rico filed a federal lawsuit to halt the Navy’s exercise,
arguing that the Navy’s training activities would threaten public health and violate both
the new noise-restriction law and the 1972 federal Noise Control Act. On January 2,
2002, the court dismissed the lawsuit on jurisdictional grounds, stating that Congress
never intended “to create a private action for violations by a federal entity of the state and
local environmental noise requirements.”
New Bush Administration Plan and Reaction. On June 14, 2001, the Bush
Administration announced that it had decided to end military training operations at
Vieques by May 1, 2003. Under the Administration’s plan, DON began planning for
withdrawal from the island by that date, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was to
appoint a panel of retired military officers and other experts to seek effective training
alternatives to Vieques, and the Defense Department was to seek relief from the
requirement to hold the November 2001 referendum (which was rescheduled for January

2002) by asking Congress to pass legislation cancelling sections 1503, 1504 and 1505(b)

of P.L. 106-398. After May 1, 2003, the DON-owned land on the eastern end of the
island would be turned over to the Interior Department.
Supporters of the military immediately criticized the Bush Administration’s new plan
on the grounds that it could lead to reduced readiness of U.S. naval forces and complicate
the U.S. ability to maintain access to overseas training ranges in places such as Okinawa

and South Korea. Some opponents of continued military training operations on the island
welcomed the plan because it established with finality that training operations would end
by May 1, 2003, but other opponents of the training operations criticized the plan on the
grounds that it didn’t go far enough — that training operations should end immediately
rather than on May 1, 2003.
Governor Calderon welcomed the plan as far as it went but stated that she still
wanted training operations to end immediately. She proceeded with her plan to hold a
Puerto Rico-sponsored non-binding referendum on July 29, 2001 that gave voters on the
island an opportunity to vote in favor of an immediate cessation of training operations —
an option that would not be available at the separate January 2002 referendum to be held
under the Clinton-Rossello plan. In the July 29 referendum, which drew 80.6 percent of
the island’s 5,893 registered voters, about 68 percent voted in favor of immediate
cessation of training operations, about 30 percent voted to permit operations to continue
indefinitely, and about 2 percent voted for operations to cease by May 1, 2003.
On January 7, 2002, the Secretary of the Navy denied a November 2001 request from
the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and Commandant of the Marine Corps for a Navy
battle group led by the carrier John F. Kennedy to train at Vieques. Subsequent Navy
battle groups, however, were permitted to train at Vieques.
Legislation in 2001 and 2002. The FY2002 defense authorization act (P.L. 107-
107; S. 1438) contains a provision (Section 1049) that (1) canceled the requirement for
holding the January 2002 referendum; (2) authorized the Secretary of the Navy to close
the Vieques range, and terminate all Navy and Marine Corps operations at the Roosevelt
Roads naval station that are related exclusively to use of the range, if the Secretary
certifies that “one or more alternative training facilities exist that, individually or
collectively, provide an equivalent or superior level of training” and are immediately
available upon cessation of training on Vieques; (3) required the Secretary, in making this
determination, to take into account the written views and recommendations of the Chief
of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marine Corps; and (4) transferred the
range lands to the Department of the Interior if the range is closed. In its report (S.Rept.
107-151 of May 15, 2002) on the FY2003 defense authorization bill (S. 2514), the Senate
Armed Services Committee
directs the Secretary of the Navy to provide a report to the congressional defense
committees on the plans for joint task force, combined-arms training of carrier battle
groups and amphibious ready groups during fiscal year 2003. This report should
include a description of the locations where that training will be conducted, the use
of live munitions during that training, and a description of the naval and military
capabilities to be exercised during training. The report should also describe the
Secretary’s progress regarding the identification of an alternate location or locations
for the training range at Vieques. The committee directs the Secretary to provide this
report no later than March 1, 2003. The committee understands that, until such time
as a decision is made by the Secretary of the Navy in accordance with Section 1049
of [P.L. 107-107], Navy and Marine Corps training will continue at Vieques as it is
currently. (page 311)
Closures of Vieques Range and Roosevelt Roads. DON conducted its final
training operations at Vieques in February 2003. On April 30, 2003, DON closed the
range and transferred the land to the Department of the Interior, which will use the land

as a wildlife refuge, except the Live Impact Area, which will be designated as a
wilderness area. The Secretary of the Navy certified to Congress on January 10, 2003,
that DON would cease training operations on the island by that date, in accordance with
Section 1049 of P.L. 107-107. In making the certification, DoD stated that the Navy had
identified alternative training sites that collectively will provide equivalent or superior
training to the training options provided at Vieques. On March 31, 2004, as directed by
Section 8132 of the FY2004 defense appropriations act (P.L. 108-87/H.R. 2658), the
Navy closed the supporting Roosevelt Roads naval station on mainland Puerto Rico.
Potential Issues for Congress
Potential issues for Congress include the following: Are the Navy’s alternative
training sites and methods collectively providing an equivalent or superior level of
training to that provided at Vieques prior to April 1999? How might the decision to close
Vieques affect the U.S. ability to maintain access to overseas training ranges where there
is local opposition to U.S. operations, such as Okinawa or South Korea? Does the
decision to close Vieques set a precedent for managing disputes over ranges? Will it
encourage other local populations to step up their opposition to U.S. training activities?
What economic impact will the closure of the Roosevelt Roads naval station have on the
surrounding community?
Legislative Activity
FY2004 Defense Authorization Bill. In its report (S.Rept. 108-46 of May 13,
2003) on the FY2004 defense authorization bill (S. 1050), the Senate Armed Services
Committee said it strongly supported the Navy’s plan to reduce its presence at Roosevelt
Roads (page 300) and directed the Navy to report to Congress on the status of cleanup-
related actions for Vieques (page 307). The report stated that
this committee intends to remain focused on the progress of cleanup and future use
of the former Navy lands on Vieques.... The committee further expects the Secretary
of the Navy to expeditiously complete all environmental cleanup actions on Vieques
Island, based on available funds, overall priorities, and applicable laws. (Page 307)
FY2004 Defense Appropriations Bill. Section 8132 of the FY2004 defense
appropriations act (H.R. 2658/P.L. 108-87 of September 30, 2003; H.Rept. 108-283 of
September 24, 2003, pages 50 and 344-345) directed the Navy to close Roosevelt Roads
naval station no later than six months after enactment of the bill, and to dispose of the
property in accordance with the procedures and authorities of the Base Realignment and
Closure (BRAC) Act of 1990 (10 USC 2687). The House-passed version of the bill
contained a somewhat different provision (Section 8125) added by floor amendment.