photos by Dr. James Porter, University of Georgia

text by Julia Reynolds


Above, a 2000-pound General Purpose bomb, Alcatraz Reef, within the U.S. Naval bombing range, Isla de Vieques. Photo by Dr. James Porter, Univ. of Georgia.


















A rocket is imbedded in the crater wall, Alcatraz Reef, within the U.S. Naval bombing range, Isla de Vieques, Puerto Rico. Most of the metallic objects in craters walls are invisible to the naked eye, but their presence in fissures and stress fractures is revealed by a metal detector. Photo by Dr. James Porter, Univ. of Georgia









Looking into the hold of the "Barge of Barrels." Photo by Dr. James Porter, Univ. of Georgia


View of the hold of the “Barge of Barrels,” wreckage found sunk in the shallow channel between coral reefs in front of Bahia Salina del Sur, Isla de Vieques, Puerto Rico. The contents of the barrels are unknown. Live ordnance litters the bottom in the vicinity of the “Barge of Barrels.” This dump site is directly in the line of fire for any military exercises within the Vieques bombing range. Photo by Dr. James Porter, Univ. of Georgia

A few years ago, the government of Puerto Rico wanted to find out what effect the U.S. Navy’s presence had on the underwater environment around the island of Vieques. So they hired Dr. James Porter, a Yale-trained expert on coral reefs, to study the sea bed around Bahía Salina del Sur and Roca Alcatraz, just offshore from the Navy’s airfield in Vieques.

Dr. Porter and his team of scientists from the University of Georgia were shocked by what they found.

The sea floor was littered with an array of Navy junk, some of it under just fifteen feet of water. The team found unexploded live ordnance, 2000-pound bombs, artillery shells, compressed-gas cylinders and bombs leaking toxic material onto the delicate coral reefs.

They also found a mysterious, sunken “barge of barrels.” Dr. Porter says this broken-down, shipwrecked hull contains fifty-five gallon drums “too numerous to count,” but he estimates there are at least 900 to 1,000 of them — contents unknown.

The “Barge of Barrels,” sunk in Bahia Salina del Sur, off the coast of Vieques, with coral growing in front and on top. Photo by Dr. James Porter, Univ. of Georgia.

At first, the Navy said the barrels were filled with air. “But air-filled barrels don’t sink,” Dr. Porter points out. “So then they said they contained sand and water.

One consultant for the Puerto Rican government believes they most likely contain “PCBs [ a banned pollutant and suspected carcinogen] , transformer oil or other liquid toxic waste.” Because the barrels were in poor condition, any close examination might disturb the contents and cause a dangerous spill if the barrels contain toxic material.

Whatever the contents of the barrels, the potential dangers of the Navy’s dumping ground are multiple: first, toxins leaking from bombs have already begun to seriously damage coral reefs, which Dr. Porter says can take “a half century or more to repair.”

Another danger is posed by the Navy’s present-day use of “green” munitions. Although these non-exploding, cement-filled bombs are considered safer than explosives, Dr. Porter warns that it would be catastrophic if test munitions were dropped near the barrels or the abundant live ordnance in the area.

If the barrels do contain toxic waste, a leak would certainly mean an environmental disaster for the reefs and the sea surrounding Vieques.
So Dr. Porter urged Puerto Rican officials to ask the Navy to designate a “no-drop” zone around Alcatraz Reef. If it ever received the information, the Navy ignored the request.

In November 1999, Porter described his findings in a court affidavit to be used in an environmental lawsuit filed by Puerto Rican Governor Rosselló against the Navy.

But Dr. Porter says he was shocked when, in the midst of negotiations with the Clinton administration, Rosselló asked him not to disseminate the results of the study, nor publish his findings. The lawsuit for which he testified was abruptly dropped.

“I was under a gag order from the Rosselló administration,” Porter recalls.
Although the directive President Clinton issued as a result of those negotiations does not explicitly prohibit Puerto Rico from filing suit against the Navy, it is possible that Rosselló’s suit was dropped as part of that compromise.

“I’ve been told that my study was on Clinton’s desk while the compromise was being negotiated,” Porter says. “And it was ignored.”

Asked if he believed his study was suppressed for political reasons, Dr. Porter says, “Yes. Eventually, it was.”

It wasn’t until Sila Calderón became the island’s new governor that the “gag order” was lifted and Porter was sent an official letter from Puerto Rico, stating he was now free to disseminate his findings. One of his first allies was

Congressman Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá (D-Puerto Rico), whose senior policy analyst Paul Weiss was “absolutely stunned” when he saw photographs of the undersea wreckage.

Acevedo-Vilá’s office urged the Navy to adopt the no-drop zone. “They gave us the cold shoulder,” says Weiss. “My worst fears are that what’s in those barrels is extremely toxic.” Acevedo-Vilá is pushing for further investigation to determine the barrels’ and gas cylinders’ contents. “If our worst fears are realized, it could change everything,” Weiss says. “It would add a powerful component to the debate [with the Navy].”

In April 2001, Porter asked that “this one site be designated as an area to be avoided,” in a letter to Captain John Warnecke, commander at Roosevelts Roads Naval base in Puerto Rico. The Navy can’t deny knowledge of his report or his warning, he says. “They now know.”

The Navy began dropping green munitions on August 2, with no indication it would honor Dr. Porter’s request.

Left to right: The team found compressed gas cylinders, contents unknown. Second, barrels litter the sea floor. Third, scientists sample high-explosive materials leaking from bombs at Alcatraz Reef. Far right, a magnetometer study of craters in the coral reef revealed heavy concentrations of metallic shrapnel on all sides of the crater wall, and demonstrates that these craters are created by bombs, not, as had been suggested, by hurricanes. Photos by Dr. James Porter, Univ. of Georgia


Blackened and diseased star coral (Montastrea annularis cf. faveolata) in physical contact with leaking bomb at Alcatraz Reef, off Vieques. Photo by Dr. James Porter, Univ. of Georgia




© 2001 El Andar Magazine,
photos by Dr. James Porter, published with permission