The U.S. House approved an amendment presented by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, on Thursday to allocate $10 million to use closed detonation chambers in efforts to clean up military ordnance in Vieques, a smaller island located about seven miles off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico that for over 60 years served as a bombing range and site for military-training exercises.
Since 2003, the U.S. Navy has been using open-air detonation chambers to try to clean up ordnance that contain toxins such as Agent Orange, depleted uranium and mercury. The military ordnance was left behind across 9,000 acres of the property by the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces after decades of military weapons tests.
The Navy’s Naval Facilities Engineering Command Atlantic, which is in charge of the Vieques Environmental Restoration program, considers open detonations to be “a much safer process” for site workers because they don’t have to carry unexploded ordnances to a different site. They also argue “it is the quickest and most efficient way to complete the cleanup” process.
But a report from the Congressional Research Service states that a series of “environmental concerns” exist around open-air detonation practices.
The report found that closed detonation methods such as “burn trays and blast boxes” are more effective at containing pollutants and toxic emissions during military cleanup efforts.
The language in Ocasio Cortez’s amendment encourages the U.S. government to purchase, deploy and operate closed detonation chambers to substantially reduce “the practice of open air burning and open air detonation to the lowest practicable level.”
The amendment was presented as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020 which also included another amendment presented by Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of Congress Rep. Jennifer González, R-PR.
González’s amendment puts pressure on the U.S. Secretary of Defense to explore “all the ways and alternatives to accelerate the process of environmental cleanup and restoration in Vieques.”
In a letter sent in April, 42 organizations called out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and various members of Congress for not promoting the use of safer, less harmful decontamination methods in Vieques when less polluting alternatives exist.
“To date, the Navy reports that it has open air burned or detonated more than 100,000 high explosive UXO ordnance, including bombs, projectiles, rockets, grenades and submunitions as part of its environmental remediation program,” the letter reads. “By definition, open burning and detonation result in the uncontrolled release of toxic pollutants to the environment. These toxic emissions endanger public health.”
Myrna Pagan of Vidas Viequenses Valen, a local community group, said in a statement, “The people of Vieques have denounced for decades the toxic damage this practice has produced on our community, causing a health crisis. We have no hospital in Vieques to provide health care services to the victims. The open burnings and open detonations are an attack on our human rights to health and development,” she stated.
According to Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, an associate counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a Latino civil rights organization, open-air detonations tend to be one of the cheapest cleanup practices and also one of the most contaminating.
Groups like LatinoJustice are now pushing the U.S. Senate to pass the House-approved amendments to support “a clean-up process that prioritizes the health” of the people of Vieques, according to the group.
“The Vieques Amendment passed the House and now moves to the Senate! Call your Senator to tell them that to support the Amendment and a clean-up process that prioritizes the health of Viequenses,” the organization tweeted.
If the Senate approves the amendments, then the U.S. government will provide the $10 million needed to pay for alternative cleanup methods.
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Nadler says Mueller should ignore DOJ ‘cover-up’ efforts on testimony
House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said on Tuesday that former special counsel Robert Mueller should ignore Justice Department attempts to stifle his highly anticipated congressional testimony, referring to their efforts as “part of a cover-up.”
On Monday, Associate Deputy Attorney General Bradley Weinscheimer wrote a letter instructing Mueller not to provide any testimony regarding the redacted portions of his report. Mueller had already said he would not go beyond the content contained within his more than 440-page report during his public testimony.
The letter also stated that “any testimony must remain within the boundaries of your public report because matters within the scope of your investigation were covered by executive privilege.”
Nadler told CNN Tuesday that he didn’t believe that letter was an impediment to Mueller’s testimony, adding that the instruction to do so is “a part of the cover-up of the administration to keep information away from the American people.”
“But I think it’s not going to have a real impact,” he said.
Asked if Mueller must comply with the letter, Nadler said the former special counsel does not.
“He doesn’t work for them,” Nadler said. “And that letter asks things that are beyond the power of the agency to ask even if he still worked there.”
Mueller will testify Wednesday in separate sessions before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. In May, Mueller said if he were to testify before Congress that “testimony from this office would not go beyond our report.”
“We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself,” he added. “The report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”
A spokesman for Mueller, Jim Popkin, told NBC News on Monday that the former special counsel will give a brief opening statement before offering the entire report as his full statement for the record.
A Democratic House Intelligence Committee aide told NBC News last week that Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., does not “subscribe” to the belief that Mueller is required to “stay within the four corners” of the report.
But a Democratic House Judiciary aide also told NBC News last week that even if Mueller doesn’t go beyond the report, “we think that limitation … can be worked through because there really is such strong language throughout the report even if they didn’t bring it all together in a way that connects it all, to the to the ultimate conclusion.”
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