When President George W. Bush announced that the Navy would stop conducting bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques in 2003, human rights activists and environmentalists across the country breathed a sigh of relief. But that relief quickly gave way to new outrage when word leaked that the Navy was looking to move the training to one of several sites along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, including one just south of Corpus Christi in Kenedy County.
The outcry against the proposed bombing site quickly spread across the state. Even conservative politicians, including state comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, have voiced concerns over the bombing proposal, causing some experts and local media outlets to deem the proposal practically dead in the water.
But for the more than 100 Austinites gathered at the Austin History Center last Thursday to plot strategy, the fight isn't over until the Navy officially scratches the environmentally sensitive stretch of coastline off the list of possible sites for bombing and live ammunition exercises. And since Navy spokespeople still say it's much too early to make a decision, concerned Austinites -- from fishermen to environmentalists -- vowed to continue the fight at the meeting, which was hosted by the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Fred Richardson, communications director of the Lone Star Chapter, said the odds are good that the exercises will not come to South Texas, but he doesn't want to take any chances.
"We want a knockout in round one, and we are going to plan for that," he said.
The proposal, which has been pushed by U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz and the Corpus Christi and Kingsville Chambers of Commerce, would create a training ground for bombing, ship-to-shore shelling, and amphibious troop landings on about 222,000 acres of ranchland in Kenedy County. Supporters of the project say it would create jobs and protect the three military bases located near the site from budget-necessitated closings.
The list of objections to the proposal is extensive. Sportsmen and environmentalists say the very nature of the training exercises would allow vehicles to destroy the coastline and damage the ecologically sensitive Laguna Madre, which is the only coastal hypersaline system in North America and a haven for both commercial and sport fishing. The Laguna Madre is also home to a variety of plant and bird species, 15 of which are endangered. And the Texas shrimping industry relies heavily on the area. Karen Chapman, assistant director of the Texas Center for Policy Studies, called the potential environmental impact "too damaging to justify."
But the human toll of the Navy exercises is what most worries Lourdes Perez. The uranium used in the exercises was a major issue for protestors in Vieques, which has been the site of bombings for six decades. Perez, who has been an activist on the island, has seen the pain of the people there -- from cancer to increased unemployment to a contaminated food chain -- firsthand. "The amount of emotional and psychological stress that these people have endured is incredible," said Perez.
Austin activists are planning to join a statewide protest near the area of the proposed training site on Aug. 17 and 18. Groups like the Sierra Club are getting into the act by holding more public meetings and planning sessions so Austinites can help keep the bombing away from South Texas.
Richardson said he wants people to understand that conducting these sorts of exercises in the Laguna Madre would be like "suggesting we strip mine for coal in Yellowstone or make a landfill in Big Bend."
Hal Suter, a Corpus Christi resident, said opposition from local groups and politicians in Corpus Christi is intense. In fact, earlier this month, Kenedy County Commissioners Court voted unanimously -- if symbolically -- to oppose the Navy's plans.
The Navy has refused to reveal which other sites are being considered. For some activists, though, the fight goes further than this pristine strip of South Texas. Many Austinites at the meeting said they didn't want to fall into the "not in my back yard" mindset. For them, simply keeping the bombing away from Texas isn't enough.
"We have to strategize for something completely different. We have to strategize about how not to construct this anywhere," said Annette D'Armata, who also spoke at the meeting. "If another country did what has been done [to Vieques], we would go to war with them."