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RFK Jr.: Navy Harming Vieques

Health concerns could figure prominently in the new showdown brewing over the Navy bombing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

But environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late senator and nephew of the slain president, s vowing to stop the Navy bombing because it harms the pople and wild life of the island.

"I don't think these exercises would be done anyplace else in the United States," he said Tuesday on CBS News' The Early Show.

Puerto Rican officials say the Navy has told them it plans to resume live firing exercises at the range this week. A Navy spokesman says he has no information about the planned exercises.

If the exercises resume, they would be the first since an off-target bomb killed a civilian guard on Vieques last year.

On Vieques Sunday, Kennedy, who plans to file a lawsuit against the Navy, told protesters he will not allow one more bomb to be dropped. Kennedy spoke after the Navy refused to allow him to collect soil samples from the range as evidence in a suit against the U.S. government.

"As a direct result of the naval bombing, the people of Vieques have the highest mortality rate in Puerto Rico, the highest infant mortality rate in Puerto Rico, the highest cancer rate in Puerto Rico," Kennedy told Early Show co-anchor Jane Clayson.

"The bombing scatters toxins all over the ground. The toxins are resuspended in the air by the second wave of bombing. The dust is blown under the communities, and the people get sick."

In addition, the bombing is endangering sea turtles and brown pelicans and is wiping out several plant species, Kennedy said.

The Puerto Rico Planning Board sent out a statement saying the Navy planned two-six days of exercises this week on Vieques.

Resentment over the Navy's presence on Vieques boiled over in April 1999, when a jet dropped two 500-pound bombs off-target, killing a civilian security guard at the bombing range. The Navy called a moratorium on bombing, and dozens of protesters occupied the range.

They were cleared in a federal operation that began May 4, 2000, and the Navy resumed training under a deal between President Clinton and the governor of Puerto Rico. The deal calls for a referendum by Vieques' 9,300 residents and the use of inert ordnance by the Navy until after the vote.

The referendum is to be held as early as this August or as late as February 2002, with the date set by the Navy. If the Navy loses, it would have to leave by May 2003. If it wins, it can use live ordnance.

Kennedy says there are three admirals - one a former commander of the Atlantic fleet - who have said and who will testify that the maneuvers that are being practiced here could be practiced anywhere. In addition, many of the exercises are obsolete.

"They're practicing a beach landing," he said. "The last time it was done was in Inchon [in Korea in 1950]. It'll nevebe done again."

The Navy has used Vieques as a bombing range for more than 50 years and says no other site can provide the same realistic training.

A dummy bomb lies
in front of a makeshift
chapel built by Vieques

The Navy says if it stays, it will create job training programs and try to bring high technology businesses to Vieques, where unemployment is 14 percent.

The Navy has disputed claims by anti-bombing range activists that the Navy exercises damage Vieques' environment and contribute to the island's cancer rate. The most recent study by the local health department, done in the late 1980s, showed the island's cancer rate to be more than 20 percent higher than the Puerto Rican average.

©2000 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report

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