NEW YORK, NY – Puerto Rico Federal Affairs (PRFAA) Executive Director Juan E. Hernández hosted a forum today on Vieques titled “Environmental and Economic Revitalization of an Island.” On May 1st the People of Puerto Rico celebrate the 10th anniversary of the closing of the U.S. Navy bombing range in Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Speakers at the event included Congressman José Serrano (D-NY); Carmen Guerrero, Secretary of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources of Puerto Rico; Eduardo Bhatia, President of the Senate of Puerto Rico; Judith Enck, EPA Region II Administrator; Claudia Gutiérrez, Senior Advisor to Administrator Enck; and Brenda Torres, PRFAA Northeast Regional Director.
Following are the opening remarks made by Director Hernández, as prepared for delivery (quote from Secretary Guerrero included at the end):
Bienvenidos. On behalf of the Governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Alejandro García Padilla, welcome to the New York City regional office of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA). As many of you know, PRFAA is the Governor’s office in the United States, with headquarters in Washington, D.C.
We are pleased to be joined here today by many friends to talk about the struggle for peace and justice in Vieques, Puerto Rico. One such friend, and key ally in this cause, is Congressman José Serrano who will make brief introductory remarks before our panel discussion. Congressman, thank you for joining us.
In order to discuss the details of our efforts to ensure that the legitimate demands of Viequenses are met, and the next steps that need to be taken, I am joined by a distinguished panel that includes:
- The Honorable Eduardo Bhatia Gautier, President of the Senate of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico;
- The Honorable Carmen Guerrero, Secretary of the Department of Natural and Environment Resources of Puerto Rico;
- Judith Enck, EPA Region II Administrator;
- Claudia Gutiérrez, Senior Advisor to Administrator Enck; and
- Fernando Lloveras, Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust
We are also joined by community leaders and representatives of several local, state and Congressional offices. Several Members of Congress, including José Serrano, Nydia Velázquez, Luis Gutiérrez, Alan Grayson, former Congressman Steve Rothman, and several others continue to support our cause and we thank them for their support.
I am also pleased to formally introduce Brenda Torres who is PRFAA’s Regional Director here in New York City. Brenda is an experienced environmental consultant who has worked in the private, public and non-profit sectors. She has degrees from Stanford, Yale and the University of Puerto Rico and we are very proud to have her as a member of our team.
Ten years ago today, the U.S. Navy left the Island of Vieques, Puerto Rico after 60 years of bombing exercises in which toxics such as napalm, agent orange and depleted uranium were used. Even though a decade has passed since the bombing stopped, the legacy of disease and environmental contamination remains. The rates of cancer and other diseases in Vieques are still alarmingly higher than the rest of Puerto Rico and something must be done now to remedy that situation.
That is why Governor Alejandro García Padilla and our Administration are committed to the key demands of: a thorough decontamination of the former military target range, the need to address the dire health care situation of Vieques’ residents, and the sustainable development of this small Caribbean Island that is home to more than 9,000 U.S. citizens.
Vieques is an issue that has united our people across all sectors of society, regardless of political affiliation or place of residence. We are holding today’s forum in New York City precisely because our brothers and sisters here and in many other states of the U.S. were crucial to achieving the Navy’s exit from our Isla Nena. ‘Hermanas y hermanos de Nueva York,’ we need your help once again so that the U.S. government meets its responsibility with the people of Vieques.
Before I turn it over to the panel, I would like to say a few brief words about the concrete steps that Governor García Padilla’s Administration has taken and will take to follow through with our unyielding commitment to this issue:
- Vieques is one of the most impoverished municipalities in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
- Our administration wants to implement the sustainable development plan developed in coordination with Vieques’ residents and local key actors in 2004.
- Our Department of Economic Development and our Planning Board are revising this plan and will meet with local communities on May the 16th in order to retake civic engagement in the Vieques economic development strategies.
- Regarding education, our Department of Education has acquired a local school where we have established an alliance with local non-profit Nuestra Escuela that specializes in at risk students and school dropout prevention.
- The health of Viequenses is one of our main concerns, which is why our Department of Health has begun to study the public health priorities of the population in order to develop a plan of monthly mobile clinics in the island specialized in local health needs and is currently developing a collaborative agreement with the Comprehensive Cancer Center of Puerto Rico.
- Regarding the ATSDR Health Study on Vieques, it is unacceptable that the federal government avoids and minimizes their real and evident responsibility with the public health issues in Vieques caused by the military’s practices during more than 60 years.
- We require the federal government to take concrete actions to provide immediate and effective health services on Viequenses’ specific health needs, such as cancer. Any further delays on this matter are unacceptable to us.
- PRFAA will coordinate meetings with the U.S. Departments of Interior, Health & Human Services (HHS), and Defense in order to promote our Vieques agenda. In fact, I met with officials at HHS two days ago to discuss this matter. In addition, Ms. Enck was kind enough to visit my office in Washington in February and we spoke about Vieques, as well as the need to decontaminate the former Navy bombing range in Culebra. Following a lamentable accident in March when a 7 year old girl was injured due to unexploded ordnance in Culebra, I sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to demand a prompt and thorough clean-up of both Culebra and Vieques.
- In order to follow-up on this agenda we will create a special office in the Governor’s Mansion – La Fortaleza – that will have as a sole objective the sustainable development of Vieques and Culebra.
- Secretary Guerrero will expand on these and other action items our Administration plans to take.
- This is a human rights issue that must be addressed by the U.S. Government. Vieques’ residents have the right to live with dignity and health.
Congressman Serrano will now make his remarks. Afterwards, we will hear from our panel and at the end we will take questions from the audience and the press.
Secretary Guerrero said: “Vieques is a social justice and human rights issue that must be addressed by the Commonwealth, municipal and federal governments. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is committed to achieving the 4 ‘D’s’ that the residents of Vieques have claimed for years: demilitarization, decontamination, devolution, and development.”
From left to right: Carmen Guerrero, Secretary of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources of Puerto Rico, Judith Enck, EPA Region II Administrator, Juan E. Hernández, Puerto Rico Federal Affairs (PRFAA) Executive Director and Congressman José Serrano (D-NY)
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