Environmental Groups Ask Court to Halt Vieques Bombing

A coalition of environmental groups led by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is asking the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to issue an emergency stay to halt U.S. Navy bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

During demonstrations on the island this spring, about 180 protesters have been arrested for trespassing on government property, including Kennedy.

The Rev. Al Sharpton and three New York politicians, who are currently serving 40- to 90-day prison sentences for trespassing on the island during a May 1 demonstration, have appealed their convictions and sentences. A decision on the appeals could come from the court next week.

Kennedy's groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Water Keeper Alliance, on Thursday filed two petitions with the court, which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico.

The groups are asking the appeals court to issue an emergency stay to halt the military exercises pending a ruling on their earlier request for an injunction and to order a federal judge in Puerto Rico to rule on their injunction, filed in October.

The groups claim the exercises violate the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Kennedy said there are 13 endangered species in the bombing area, including brown pelicans, West Indian manatees, four whale species, four turtle species and three plant species.

The Environmental Species Act requires that biological assessments must be completed whenever an endangered or threatened species may be affected.

"The biological assessment has never occurred," Kennedy said.

"We raised this with the district court in (Puerto Rico) in October, and the district court has sat on our lawsuit for eight months."

Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was arrested on April 28 for trespassing on the island. He is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council and president of the Water Keeper Alliance.

"I conducted a civil disobedience for the same reason — that I could not get my motion heard," he said.

"I have 28 clients on the island who are people feeling very alienated. I told them the American system of justice works, that their case would be heard, and the U.S. Navy was not above the law, and that a judge would hear their case. That's why I went on the site."

The court did not immediately set a date to hear the motions filed by Kennedy's groups.

Sharpton, along with New York City Councilman Adolfo Carrion, state Assemblyman Jose Rivera and Bronx County Democratic Party chairman Roberto Ramirez were arrested in Puerto Rico for taking part in protests.

Sharpton was given a 90-day sentence by a federal judge in Puerto Rico because of a prior conviction for civil disobedience. The other three were each sentenced to 40 days.

All four men are being held at a New York detention center while they await word on their appeals, which were argued Tuesday before the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The four men began a hunger strike on May 29. Carrion ended his fast last week. Sharpton, Rivera and Ramirez were in the 11th day of their fast on Friday.

Kennedy said he is scheduled to go to trial on his trespassing charge July 6 in U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico.

The Navy has used its range on Vieques for six decades and says the bombing exercises are safe and vital for national security. Critics say it poses a health threat to the 9,400 people who live there.

A Navy spokeswoman said the Navy regularly checks the Vieques range for sea turtle nests, and that personnel walk the beach each morning and night to check on the wildlife.

"We have been going to great lengths to ensure that all environmental laws are adhered to," said Lt. Cmdr. Katherine Goode.

"The environmental conditions out there are very well preserved," she said.

Anti-Navy activist Ismael Guadalupe, a retired teacher who lives on Vieques, welcomed the action by Kennedy.

"In the fight against the Navy we need to use all means available," Guadalupe said. "Adding the name of Kennedy to this fight is important."

Opposition to the exercises grew after a civilian guard was killed on the range in 1999 by off-target bombs. The Navy has since stopped using live ammunition. Islanders will vote in November whether the Navy must leave in 2003 or can stay, resuming the use of live ammunition.

Other high-profile protesters arrested during demonstrations include U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, actor Edward James Olmos and New York labor leader Dennis Rivera.

The exercises are scheduled to resume June 13 and could last up to 18 days, the Navy has said.