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Puerto Rico May Deny US Navy Permit

August 19, 1999

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ A Puerto Rican agency on Wednesday threatened said Wednesday it might deny the U.S. Navy an environmental permit it says is necessary to resume military exercises on Vieques Island.

The threat by the Environmental Quality Board was its latest skirmish with the Navy over bombing exercises.

On Tuesday, the board sent 12 inspectors to the Vieques range to investigate claims by opponents of the exercises that bombing has contaminated groundwater.

Navy officials refused to admit one member of the team, a munitions expert hired as a consultant, because they feared he was gathering evidence for a potential lawsuit the Puerto Rican government is considering against the Navy. The inspection was canceled.

``This person was not an inspector. He was a technical adviser,″ said Navy spokesman Roberto Nelson.

Hector Russe, the board’s president, said he might deny the Navy a water quality certificate required by the Environmental Protection Agency for the military maneuvers if the entire team can’t visit the range.

Russe said the consultant was hired because the agency lacks an expert in the chemicals used in military explosives.

The Navy requested the water quality certificate in 1989, but Russe said the application was never processed because of a clerical error. The EPA allowed the military to continue exercises without the certificate, he said.

Russe said local regulators discovered the lack of a permit during a government probe into exercises at the range. Nelson said the Navy wants to comply.

EPA officials in San Juan could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The inspection was to have coincided with a two-day visit by EPA experts investigating claims of environmental damage.

The Navy owns two-thirds of Vieques and uses it for weapons storage and military maneuvers. About 9,400 people live in the other third.

Opposition to the Navy’s presence flared after an F-18 jet dropped two bombs off target and killed a civilian guard at the training ground on April 19. Later, the Navy admitted it fired 267 rounds tipped with depleted uranium at the island in February in violation of federal rules.

A Puerto Rican government investigation detailed other accidents at the training ground, and protesters have occupied the bombing range in an attempt to thwart further exercises.

President Clinton has appointed a panel to consider the dispute.

Update hourly