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
few years ago, the government of Puerto Rico wanted to
find out what effect the U.S. Navys 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 Navys
airfield in Vieques.
Porter and his team of scientists from the University of Georgia
were shocked by what they found.
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
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
“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.
first, the Navy said the barrels were filled with air. But
air-filled barrels dont sink, Dr. Porter points
out. So then they said they contained sand and water.
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.
the contents of the barrels, the potential dangers of the
Navys 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
danger is posed by the Navys 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.
the barrels do contain toxic waste, a leak would certainly
mean an environmental disaster for the reefs and the sea surrounding
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
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.
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
was under a gag order from the Rosselló administration,
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
Rossellós suit was dropped as part of that compromise.
been told that my study was on Clintons desk while the
compromise was being negotiated, Porter says. And
it was ignored.
if he believed his study was suppressed for political reasons,
Dr. Porter says, Yes. Eventually, it was.
wasnt until Sila Calderón became the islands
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
Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá (D-Puerto Rico), whose senior
policy analyst Paul Weiss was absolutely stunned
when he saw photographs of the undersea wreckage.
office urged the Navy to adopt the no-drop zone. They
gave us the cold shoulder, says Weiss. My worst
fears are that whats 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].
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 cant deny knowledge of his report or
his warning, he says. They now know.
Navy began dropping green munitions on August 2, with no indication
it would honor Dr. Porters request.
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
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