SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The National Lawyers Guild and other groups have filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against the U.S. government in a case involving Puerto Ricans living on the island of Vieques, which was once used as a bombing range.
The petition accuses the U.S. of abuses following decades of live-fire training on the island by the U.S. Navy, which left in 2003 after an errant 500-pound bomb killed a security guard in 1999.
Guild attorney Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan told The Associated Press on Tuesday that families on Vieques suffer serious health conditions because of a toxic environment left by Navy bombing. The petition was in part filed to force the U.S. government to release more information about the extent of the military's activities on Vieques and its impact on people, she said.
"There's a lot of information that remains unknown regarding toxic contaminants," she said. "People are unaware of what is causing their health issues and the continuous contamination of the island."
The petition was filed Monday on behalf of 10 Vieques residents who had cancer or have relatives who are sick. The residents also accuse Puerto Rico's government of neglecting Vieques after the Navy's departure.
The groups are asking the commission to determine whether the U.S. violated any human rights, said Annette Martinez Orabona, director of the human rights clinic at Puerto Rico's InterAmerican University's law school. If that occurs, the commission would make a list of recommendations that the U.S. government would be bound to follow, she said.
"We're not asking for specific reparations, but at some point we will," she said. She said they are not focused on money but rather on changes including improved health care and more efficient transportation from Vieques to Puerto Rico.
Martinez said the main goal is to get the U.S. government to acknowledge that the military's target practice adversely affected people's health.
"That is something that they have denied over and over again," she said.
Navy spokesman Jim Brantley did not immediately return a request for comment.
In late March, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a report saying it found no evidence that people 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. Vieques residents rejected the report and many of them filed a lawsuit, later dismissed, accusing the U.S. government of causing illnesses through harmful residues.
The cleanup of the former bombing range continues and is expected to take at least another decade.
The Navy fired or dropped more than 300,000 bombs, rockets and other munitions on Vieques from the mid-1940s to 2003, taking control of 77 percent of the island, according to a report from the non-governmental Washington Office on Latin America. So far, the Navy has removed 17 million pounds of scrap metal, destroyed more than 38,000 munitions on land and cleaned some 2,540 acres (1,028 hectares) in a rehabilitation operation budgeted at $350 million.