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  • For about six decades after World War II, the U.S. Navy used a portion of Vieques as a weapons-testing ground and firing range.

    For about six decades after World War II, the U.S. Navy used a portion of Vieques as a weapons-testing ground and firing range. | Photo: Reuters

The investigation found that birth defects decreased after the U.S. Navy temporarily suspended its military tests, which have also been linked to higher rates of cancer.

A new study recently released by the University of Toronto, Canada, confirmed that weapons and chemicals testing by the U.S. Navy on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques adversely affected the local population.

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The study, titled “Bombs and Babies, Bombing by the U.S. Marine and Child Health in Vieques,” examined the relationship between military detonations on the island of Nena over the past decade in relation to an increase in the number of deformed babies being born and other birth-related issues.

The investigation, published last December and led by Gustavo J. Bobonis, Mark Stabile and Leonardo Tovar, found that birth defects decreased after the U.S. Navy temporarily suspended its military tests in July 2000 after a bombing took the life of a security guard.

The study counters a decision by a U.S. appeals court in Boston in February 2012, which ruled that the federal government has immunity from any lawsuit over its actions.

For about six decades after World War II, the U.S. Navy used a portion of Vieques as a weapons-testing ground and firing range, detonating bombs and experimenting with chemicals, from napalm to Agent Orange and depleted uranium. The military abandoned the base in 2003 after political pressure.

Juanita Sanchez, a resident of the island, sued on behalf of her daughter and some 7,000 others in 2007. The lawsuit accused the U.S. military of causing illness among inhabitants, including a 30 percent increase in the cancer rate compared to Puerto Rico's main island.

In response, a U.S. appeals court agreed with a lower court that had previously dismissed the case. Courts should be cautious about interfering with the exercise of military authority, Chief Judge Sandra Lynch wrote on behalf of two members of the three-judge panel.

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But the third judge, Juan Torruella, who comes from Puerto Rico, issued a vehement criticism. The government was aware of the toxic impact of its activities in 1979, he wrote. Its decision not to warn residents was not an exercise of judgment entitled to immunity, he added.

"Nowhere does the medieval concept of 'the King can do no wrong' underlying the doctrine of sovereign immunity sound more hollow and abusive than when an imperial power applies it to a group of helpless subjects. This cannot be a proper role for the United States of America," Torruella wrote.

All three judges agreed that the suit raised serious health concerns that should be brought to the attention of Congress. The opinion included an instruction for the court clerk to submit copies of the decision to leaders of the House of Representatives and Senate.

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