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Vieques Ponders Future 10 Years After Navy Left

In late March, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry issued a long-awaited report stating it found no proof that residents had been sickened by substances left behind by bombs and other munitions, identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as TNT, napalm, depleted uranium, mercury and lead. The report was rejected by thousands of Vieques residents, many of whom filed a lawsuit, later dismissed, that accused the U.S. government of causing illnesses by leaving harmful residues on the land.

Withers noted in his report that the Navy fired more than 300,000 munitions in Vieques from the mid-1940s to 2003, taking control of 77 percent of the land.

So far, the Navy has removed 17 million pounds of scrap metal and destroyed more than 38,000 munition items on land, according to Navy spokesman Jim Brantley.

The next step is to clear munitions underwater. Navy officials are mapping the area to determine where munitions are located, a process that will take up to 18 months, Waddill said.

"We expected that to take longer than the land cleanup," he said, adding that officials have to protect endangered coral species. "It takes time to do this kind of work safely."

Puerto Rico's Secretary of Government Ingrid Vila said the U.S. territory will push to ensure the remaining land be cleaned and returned to Vieques municipality.

Vila said officials also want to revive a 2003-2004 plan aimed at boosting the island's economy, including reopening a Vieques government office charged with economic development.

Tourism remains the island's main economic engine, with hotel occupancy growing from 41 percent to 56 percent in the past two fiscal years, according to Puerto Rico's tourism company. The number has dropped slightly so far this fiscal year.

Vila noted that a middle school is to open in Vieques in coming weeks, and that Puerto Rico's health secretary is meeting with officials in Vieques to discuss community needs.

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