Norfolk, Va – The Vieques Environmental Restoration Team of Naval Facilities Engineering Command Atlantic (NAVFAC Atlantic) completed a clean sweep of environmental awards for 2018. The team received Environmental Restoration, Individual/Team Awards from the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations for their management of cleanup operations at the former Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Area in Vieques, Puerto Rico. This marked the 2nd time the team has achieved this triple recognition in the past two years.
“These awards celebrate the remarkable commitment of an outstanding group of professionals devoted to protecting human health and the environment while advancing the military mission,” said Rear Adm. Darius Banaji, Commander, NAVFAC Atlantic in recognition of the team's efforts and accomplishments. “Their skillful use of innovative technologies, meticulous dedication to safe operations, and keen understanding of the needs of multiple stakeholders in the Vieques community have produced results that are unparalleled in the Department of Defense.”
From the mid-1940s until 2003, the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Area served as the Navy’s premier training range, ensuring combat readiness of US Atlantic Fleet Forces and for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operations. Over those decades, more than 300,000 munitions were fired during military training operations. In 2005, 23,000 acres of land in the range and 12,000 acres of surrounding waters were placed on the National Priorities List (NPL).
Responsibility for executing this complex cleanup fell to NAVFAC Atlantic’s Vieques Environmental Restoration Team. Removing, neutralizing or destroying unexploded ordnance and environmental contaminants left after many years of use was only part of their challenge. The former range is home to abundant ecologically and culturally-sensitive resources, each with their own special considerations. An equally complex challenge was addressing the often-disparate objectives of numerous stakeholders, such as including multiple regulatory agencies, local community, and various advocacy groups interested in the past and future use of the site.
The measures taken by the team have produced results in several areas. One of the most potentially dangerous challenges facing the team is the removal of thousands of submunitions in one of the most areas of the former range. Hidden by vegetation, the team developed an innovative method for removing these items. The team also worked with partners to redefine site boundaries to segregate areas of the range that were highly impacted from relatively unimpacted areas, accelerating by more than a decade return of nearly 5,000 acres to beneficial reuse.
Dangers were also addressed in the waters surrounding Vieques, where several World War II-era rockets posed a threat to 20 miles of beaches frequented by commercial and recreational users. Removal of these weapons will accelerate beneficial reuse of beaches and their nearshore waters by more than a decade. Cutting-edge technology to measure trace levels of contaminants from leaking underwater munitions was put into use, helping to demonstrate that some of the underwater munitions posed no significant concern in the marine environment.
An important aspect of the work carried out by the team was focused on building understanding and support for the cleanup process among the residents of the island. The Navy led stakeholder site visits, supported a munitions safety event for local school children, and sponsored a tour and briefing of the Vieques cleanup for the Secretary of the Interior.
These multi-facetted programs drew that attention and accolades of the highest levels of the Department of Defense.
In her letter notifying the Vieques team of their award, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Ellen Ward praised the impact of their work in promoting the environment and well-being of the residents of and visitors to Vieques.
“By removing submunitions from a former bombing range, conducting a wide area assessment of underwater munitions, and removing unexploded World War II-era rockets offshore from a small island adjacent to a public beach, the Vieques Environmental Restoration Team improved environmental performance and protected human health,” said Ward.
In presenting the Vieques team with the 2017 Chief of Naval Operations Environmental Award for Environmental Restoration during a video teleconference on June 13, 2018, Vice Adm. Dixon Smith, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, Fleet Readiness and Logistics saluted the team for environmental leadership and dedication.
"The Navy should follow the lead of this year's winners to mitigate negative environmental impacts that could hinder our abilities to operate, avoiding complacency as we remain forward-thinking in our practices," said Smith during his remarks. "The work done by these individuals and teams positively impacts our mission readiness, enabling the warfighter as we maintain an informed, innovative, and lethal fleet."