Since the government still oversees the former military base on Vieques, some scientists have resorted to deductive logic to provide possible explanations for the state of health on the island. Colón noted that neither he nor his colleagues have been able to identify an alternate source of pollution there. “The logical reasoning for all of us scientists was that if there was no other possible source of contamination in Vieques outside of the Navy’s military practices, the excess of deaths or incidence of cancer in Vieques came from the military practices,” he said.
Arturo Massol Deyá, a professor of microbiology and ecology at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, has spent 17 years conducting research on Vieques—the only independent scientist to do so. Through his research, Massol Deyá has analyzed vegetation, forage samples, crabs, lagoons, and other food sources on Vieques, finding high concentrations of heavy metals throughout the island.
In one of his most recent studies, Massol Deyá discovered that lead levels in manatee grass—the most abundant plant in affected areas of Vieques—were severely toxic in 2001, when the Navy began downscaling its operations on the island, but had returned to levels found in other Puerto Rican beaches by 2015. Nevertheless, he noticed a sustained increase of lead in the region’s plants, indicating the ecological impoverishment of the area.
Back on the island, residents have virtually no access to health services. There is one hospital on Vieques, which has one emergency room, no pharmacy, and one birthing room with spotty air conditioning. Myrna Pagán, a cancer survivor from Vieques, said there are a handful of primary doctors on the island, but no specialists who can treat the growing number of patients undergoing dialysis. To receive chemotherapy, cancer patients have to travel to San Juan—an 80-mile trip over sea and land. The small, comparatively sparsely populated island is simply not equipped to keep up with the increased demand for specialized medical service.
“Every time I go, people continue to die,” said Natasha Bannan, an associate counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, formerly known as the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. She is part of a group that filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against the U.S. government, alleging human rights abuses. “I hear stories of new people who died of cancer, of cirrhosis, of hypertension. Two of my petitioners—they’re children—were born with severe asthma,” she said.
Many activists would like to hold someone accountable for the island's health problems, but without a clear causal link to military activity, that’s proven unattainable. Bannan believes “the people of Vieques have been kept in the dark about what’s happening, and there’s no legitimate civilian input or mechanism to hold the agencies responsible.” She notes that the U.S. military is often protected under the notion of sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine that protects the government from lawsuits or other legal actions. This was why a district court and then the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit dismissed Sanchez et al. v. United States, a case filed against the U.S. in 2007 by more than 7,000 Vieques residents. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2013.