Culebra Island, located 17 miles east of Puerto Rico’s main island, is known for its white, soft sands, which makes it a favorite vacationing spot for tourists seeking to snorkel and find treasures in its waters. Unfortunately, some of those treasures may actually be unexploded ordnance due to the island’s history.
Beginning in 1901, the U.S. military used Culebra and adjacent cays as a coaling station and a radio transmitter facility. After World War II began, the Culebra Archipelago became the primary gunnery and bombing practice site for the U.S. Navy in 1939 and continued to be used for these purposes until 1975. As a result, unexploded ordnance remain present on Culebra’s land and in its surrounding waters.
The island was approved for inclusion in the Defense Environmental Restoration Program (DERP) for Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) in 1991, with the exception of the area known as the Northwest Peninsula, known as NWP, as Congress specifically prohibited the use of federal funds for its cleanup.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers executes the FUDS program on behalf of the U.S. Army and Department of Defense. The program cleans up properties formerly owned by, leased to, or otherwise possessed, by the Unites States and transferred outside of Department of Defense control prior to October 1986.
Culebra Island is part of the FUDS inventory and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District is responsible for the day to day management and clean-up of munitions on the portions of the island where authorized.
Munitions cleanup advances
The Military Construction Authorization Act of 1974 allowed the U.S. Navy to transfer the deed of Culebra Island to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, but it outlined the restriction that federal funds could not be used to conduct any remedial activities or decontamination in the bombardment area unless expressly authorized by Congress.
The bombardment area in Culebra is comprised of approximately 572 acres and is generally referred to as the Northwestern Peninsula or the Flamenco Peninsula. In fiscal year 2015, the National Defense Authorization Act authorized the Secretary of the Army to expend federal funds to remove unexploded ordnance from specific portions of the NWP, as defined by Congress, to make them available for safe public recreational use. Section 317 of the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act states that the specific authorized areas are potions of Flamenco, Tamarindo and Carlos Rosario beaches, Flamenco Campground and Carlos Rosario trail.
“Our objective is for the safe removal of the explosive hazards to make the areas where we have congressional authorization safe for the community and tourists for their recreational use,” said Wilberto Cubero, Jacksonville District project manager.
Following the authorization to conduct a Time Critical Removal Action, the Corps moved swiftly to get work started and awarded a contract in June 2016 and after finalization of necessary work plans, initiated field work in October 2016.
However in 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island, and all fieldwork was stopped as the contractors left for their own safety and Culebra started the recovery process.
Returning to the island to complete the work required lots of coordination with the mayor’s office, the Authority for the Conservation and Development of Culebra, and the community. Culebra was recovering from the storms, taking care of their own residents and restoring their island, and the Corps did not want to impact those efforts. When the Corps’ contractors returned to the island to resume the work, they made sure that they could sustain themselves in order to not take resources away from the residents.
“When our contractors came back they brought their own sustainment supplies, such as water and food. We needed to make sure that we were not a burden to the community that was still dealing with the aftermath of the overwhelming and tragic storms,” said Teresa Carpenter, Jacksonville District Contracting Officer’s Representative.
The contractor also brought in additional teams to expedite the field work in order to complete intrusive activities prior to spring break and Holy Week when hundreds of people visit the island annually, which was a major concern for the local government. As a result of this effort, all field work activities were completed in March 2018.
“Flamenco beach is the heart of the economy of Culebra, so we had to ensure our work did not negatively affect tourism during their most important season of the year,” said Cubero.
Technology makes a difference
To date, 31 unexploded ordnance have been recovered or destroyed as part of the Time Critical Removal Action, utilizing a range of technology to accomplish the work. This includes using analog metal detectors, digital geophysical mapping process data, and advanced geophysical classification (AGC). The AGC technology not only identifies whether metal that is detected is associated with munitions, but it also reduces the number of digs and amount of time for crews in the field to complete the work.
AGC methods were utilized in sub-areas where it was practicable and field work was completed. The AGC data resulted in a 70% reduction of intrusive investigations and the finding of four munitions and explosives of concern (MEC) within the sub-areas where AGC was used.
Communication is key
A proactive public involvement program is imperative in order to ease the munitions response process and help ensure the protection of people and the environment. The Culebra FUDS team has made it a priority to maintain an open line of communication with the local government and with the community, as well as other interested individuals.
The Culebra FUDS team has been diligent in engaging stakeholders in all aspects of the project. The Technical Project Planning team is comprised of the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board, Authority for the Conservation and Economic Development of Culebra (ACDEC), the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In addition to hosting several local information meetings for the public, the Corps maintains frequent communication with the mayor, ACDEC, as well as the regulatory and resource agencies providing copies of fact sheets, safety posters, and project update letters.
“We want to make sure that we are communicating effectively and that the community is well informed of our activities, including the schedule and the process required to close and reopen portions of the campground where fieldwork is taking place,” said Cubero. “In addition to the community meetings, we send letters to all mailbox holders, we post notices on our social media platforms, and we maintain a robust website that contains detailed information and documentation of our program and actions.”
Ensuring success of safety campaign
In addition to the field work, the Corps has also implemented and maintained a robust Explosives Safety Education program on Culebra. Each year, prior to the busiest season for tourism, the FUDS team travels to the island to distribute the 3Rs - Recognize, Retreat, Report – safety campaign education materials, by posting colorful posters and pamphlets around the entire island, to include at arrival points and businesses frequented by tourists.
The 3Rs Program informs the public of the military’s past use of Culebra, educating landowners and others of the actions to take to reduce the risks from munitions that may remain from the Department of Defense’s past use of the property. This includes recognizing when a munition is encountered and that munitions are dangerous, retreating from the area without disturbing the munition, and reporting to the police what was seen and where.
The Corps anticipates the final report for the Time Critical Removal Action of the congressionally authorized areas within the NWP will be completed by the end of fiscal year 2019.
Additional information on the Culebra FUDS project available at: www.saj.usace.army.mil/Culebra/