Velázquez Opening Statement at Natural Resources Committee Hearing on Vieques Legislation
Washington, DC –Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) has released the following opening statement as prepared for delivery at today's House Natural Resources Committee legislative hearing on issues related to the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico.
"Good afternoon Chairman Grijalva and members of this Committee. From the 1940s until 2003, the US Navy used Vieques as a training ground for war, pummeling the island with bombs in the name of military exercises.
"For decades, munitions, including 900kg bombs were fired from ships, jets, helicopters, and tanks, all while the island’s civilian population of roughly 9,000 lived just a few miles away. Unfortunately, the heavy metals released by the bombs contaminated the local food supply and the environment. As a result, residents of Vieques have a much higher incidence of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses.
"Vieques has a 269% higher rate of cancer, a 73% higher rate of heart disease, and 58% greater rate of diabetes than Puerto Rico overall. In addition, the Puerto Rico Bureau of Vital Statistics found that deaths on Vieques for liver disease are 95% higher and infant mortality was 55% higher than in Puerto Rico.
"Further exacerbating the situation, Vieques also lacks adequate health care services due to the destruction of the only clinic on the island after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Most recently, a three-year-old from Vieques, was referred to a hospital on the main island but the child’s condition worsened before he could get treatment and passed away. 13-year-old, Jaydeliz Moreno Ventura, suffered the same fate as she experienced seizures on the island and the Vieques clinic was not equipped to help her —the facility did not have a functioning respirator to give her the oxygen she needed when her levels plummeted. She tragically passed away as her parents tried to get her to the mainland on an air ambulance.
"Fast forward to four years ago, Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc in Puerto Rico and badly hit the island of Vieques. Ever since, I have been advocating to ensure funds are not only allocated to Puerto Rico overall, but that they reach the islands of Vieques and Culebra.
"I pressed the Trump administration repeatedly to make sure that FEMA funds were disbursed for the construction of a hospital after the hurricane destroyed Vieques’s Diagnostic Treatment Center. Some of my colleagues will remember that at my request, Speaker Pelosi convened a meeting with FEMA, and days later the Agency formally announced that 39.5 million dollars were approved for the new hospital back on January 2020. Unfortunately, more than a year has passed and there is still no medical facility in Vieques. That is why we are here.
"I made a promise long ago that I would never stop fighting for the Viequenses. And that is why this past February, I introduced HR 1317 the Vieques Recovery and Redevelopment Act of 2021. Senator Menendez has also introduced the companion bill with Senator Wicker. (S.405 - Vieques Recovery and Redevelopment Act)
"This bipartisan and bicameral bill would provide a practical means of addressing the acute health and humanitarian crisis in Vieques.
"H.R.1317 as S.405 would use the Judgment Fund, a unique fund not subject to the regular appropriations process. The bill would settle claims filed by the victims and by the municipality to provide them with compensation. The U.S. Attorney General would appoint a Special Master to administer awards from the Judgment Fund and ensure that claims are appropriately documented. Disbursements under the bill would be capped at $1 billion.
"Today, we will have the opportunity to hear testimony from Viequenses themselves and listen on the importance of this piece of legislation. The situation in Vieques is a humanitarian emergency recognized by all Puerto Ricans, regardless of political affiliation. In fact, this bill has ample community and grassroots support. The wide array of institutions and groups that support this cause include: the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), the League of united Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA), UNIDOS US, the Puerto Rico College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), among many others.
"I look forward to hearing the testimony from our distinguished witnesses today and I am positive this hearing will be first step towards providing our fellow Viequenses with a practical and fair solution after decades of inequality and injustice."