WASHINGTON – A federal judge on Thursday refused to block the resumption of Navy bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
The exercises are scheduled to resume Friday for four to seven days. "I cannot find that it would cause irreparable harm to the residents of Vieques" during that period, declared U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler.
But Kessler stressed that her decision comes at an early stage of a discussion between the military and the Puerto Rican government on future bombing exercises.
Anibal Acevedo-Vila, Puerto Rico's nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives, said he was pleased that Kessler noted "there was at least a political commitment not to resume" the bombing until federal health studies are complete. "I'm confident we will prevail on the merits," he said.
Vieques fisherman Carlos Ventura, an activist against the bombing, told radio station NotiUno after the ruling: "We can't get desperate. What we have to do now is go ahead with our strategy and plans that we have set up," referring to civil disobedience including invasion of the bombing range.
The judge said she found some disturbing aspects to the case, including "an implied promise" between Puerto Rico's governor and Navy officials that the drills would be postponed until the Department of Health and Human Services completes a review of studies linking the noise to heart problems of island residents.
Kessler's ruling came on a suit filed by the Puerto Rican government in an effort to block resumption of the bombing exercises. The suit contended the bombing could harm the health of Vieques residents and runs contrary to a newly enacted Puerto Rican law against noise pollution.
Kessler agreed that the noise from this weekend's drills would violate that new law.
Attorneys for the Justice Department argued the law -- which was signed by Puerto Rico's governor earlier this week -- was enacted solely to target the military activities. They said the commonwealth law could not be applied to military weapons.
However, when Kessler asked Justice Department attorney Angeline Purdy: "Do you agree that shelling next weekend would violate the statute?" Purdy replied: "Yes."
The Puerto Rican law cites the U.S. Noise Control Act of 1972, which allows states -- or, as in Puerto's Rico's case, U.S. territories -- to set their own noise control laws.
Kessler said the decades-old law was broadly written. "I think it's fair to say the statute is less than crystal clear," she said.
Earlier, Kessler denied a Justice Department request to transfer the case to a federal court in Puerto Rico, where several lawsuits against the bombing are pending and judges there have familiarity with the issue.
Eugene Gulland, an attorney for the commonwealth, said past naval drills on Vieques created at least 15,000 sonic booms a year. He cited various studies suggesting a link between the noise and cardiovascular problems.
Puerto Rico filed its complaint Tuesday after the governor signed the anti-noise law.
"The act was designed solely to stop the United States military training at Vieques," said John Cruden, acting assistant attorney general, in a motion filed Wednesday.
Attorneys for the federal government accused the Puerto Rican government of waiting until days before the Navy's scheduled drills to enact the legislation. Gulland denied it, saying five days of hearings were required before the law was passed.
The suit was filed against the Navy, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, acting Navy Secretary Robert Pirie and Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations.
Opposition to the Navy's use of Vieques erupted after a jet dropped two errant bombs in 1999 that killed a civilian Puerto Rican guard.
The Navy owns two-thirds of Vieques, and the bombing range covers 900 acres on the island's eastern tip. Bombing has been suspended since March on the eastern part of Vieques.
A group of Vieques residents led by the Roman Catholic bishop of Caguas, Ruben Gonzalez Medina, plan to deliver a letter to Pope John Paul II this weekend asking him to appeal to President Bush to end the naval training on Vieques.
Celebrities including Marc Anthony, Benicio del Toro, Ricky Martin, Jose Feliciano, Roberto Alomar and Juan Gonzalez asked Bush in full-page ads in Thursday's Washington Post and New York Times to "stop the bombing of Vieques now."