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Saturday, November 28, 1998 Published at 00:44 GMT

World: Americas

Rocket threat to Caribbean seabirds

Barren imestone, but home to thousand of birds

A tiny, barren, UK-run Caribbean island is at the heart of a row between environmentalists and a US firm that wants to turn it into a site for launching satellites into orbit.

The BBC's Robert Pigott: "Phosphate mining drastically reduced the bird population"
Beal Aerospace is bidding to lease Sombrero Island, situated near Anguilla in the Caribbean Sea, from the UK Government because it is a geographically ideal setting for rocket launches.

But environmentalists fear that the rocket station, which the company wants to complete by the year 2000, will wipe out the island's many breeding colonies of migrating seabirds.

Sombrero lies 34 miles from the nearest land and consists of 95 acres of arid limestone standing just 40ft above the sea, leaving it exposed to hurricanes and tropical storms.

[ image: Sombrero: Migrating seabirds flock there in thousands]
Sombrero: Migrating seabirds flock there in thousands
Seabirds flock to the island because it is isolated and free of predators, giving their chicks a better chance of surviving to become adults.

Ornithologist Judy Pierce described Sombrero as "probably the most important seabird breeding island in the entire region".

Brown and masked boobies, terns, frigates and many varieties of tropical birds all breed on the island, which is also home to the unique Sombrero black lizard.

Beal Aerospace, which plans to lease the island for 98 years at $250,000 a year, argues that the rocket station will have a positive impact on the region's economy, boosting both tourism and employment.

[ image: Unique: The Sombrero black lizard]
Unique: The Sombrero black lizard
Director Andrew Beal also questioned whether seabirds should be allowed to stand in the way of a business worth many hundreds of millions of dollars.

"You can tell us we can't have Sombrero, but is that really what we want to do for the nation of Anguilla and the world?" he said.

The environmental hazards of the rocket station have been assessed by a firm of consultants and the UK Government is studying their report before making a final decision on whether or not to allow construction to go ahead.

The government of the UK-administered island has already said it broadly favours the proposal.

[ image: Beal Aerospace is already testing rockets]
Beal Aerospace is already testing rockets
Governor Robert Harris said: "The problems are real and they won't go away. Damage is inevitable.

"What I think they [Beal Aerospace] are saying is it's possible to mitigate it to a certain degree and perhaps the potential damage is not as total as people thought."

In fact, the company has offered to buy land of a similar size in the region with the intention of recreating the bird breeding conditions on Sombrero.

Beal Aerospace has already begun testing its 200ft-tall hydrogen peroxide and kerosene-fuelled rockets at an installation in Texas, with the intention of putting its first 1000-ton satellite payload into space in the middle of the year 2000.

No timetable has been given for when the government will make a final decision on the launch station.

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