The Lowdown on Depleted Uranium in Hawai'i

FYI Article from The Honolulu Weekly


the lowdown on depleted uranium in Hawai'i

by Keith Bettinger / 06-13-07

"Damage control" has taken on a new meaning over the past year as military
officials grapple with episode after episode of discarded and forgotten
munitions. In addition to the tons of chemical weapons dumped offshore and
conventional weapons of unknown origin resting on the sea floor at
Wai'anae's Ordnance Reef, the U.S. Army is now confronted with the remnants
of depleted uranium at the site of at least one of its installations.

Adding fuel to the fire is a recent visit by globetrotting depleted uranium
enfant terrible Leuren Moret and a subsequent television news story
describing elevated radiation readings on the Big Island. While the
readings, which were obtained in an uncontrolled environment and have not
been replicated, are by no means a smoking gun, they illustrate how the
military and state officials respond to signals of a possible contamination

Military officials insist the recent findings pose no danger, but many
residents are demanding independent verification that everything is in fact
OK. According to some, the recent findings are just more evidence that the
Army is irresponsibly polluting the Islands.

In light of this, we have endeavored to sort out what is known and unknown,
and what is truth and speculation, about depleted uranium across the

What is DU?

Depleted uranium (DU) is a byproduct of the enriching process that creates
fuel for nuclear reactors, and it is used because it is able to penetrate
armor. According to the World Health Organization, depleted uranium emits
about 60 percent of the radiation as natural uranium. In its natural state
it is not especially dangerous; it is described as weakly radioactive,
comparable to some naturally occurring materials. However, DU burns when
heated to 170 degrees Celsius and aerosolizes, forming microscopic particles
that are easily dispersed by the wind. When inhaled these particles make
their way into the blood stream and cause health problems.

Some researchers believe that DU exposure is responsible for Gulf War
Syndrome, which has afflicted thousands of combat veterans since the first
Gulf War, but there is no conclusive evidence indicating a link.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says that elevated doses of DU can
lead to cancer and that aerosolized DU from training ranges can make its way
into the food chain. Although there seems to be no conclusive evidence as to
the health effects of DU, health experts advise caution since no one really
understands the potential for harm.

Cold War relic

The most concrete finding is the recent discovery of spotting rounds for
"Davy Crocket" tactical nuclear weapons at Schofield Barracks. Davy Crockets
are a relic of the Cold War and were used between 1961 and 1968. The
spotting rounds contained depleted uranium because its weight is similar to
that of the actual nuclear weapons (which were never fired in Hawai'i) and
were used to estimate trajectories.

Several tail assemblies were unearthed at Schofield by contractors working
on Stryker brigade construction, causing work to slow as special safety
procedures were put in place. There is some suspicion that these munitions
were also used at Makua Military Reservation and at Pohakuloa Training Area
on the Big Island. As of yet there has been no evidence to support this, but
perhaps more importantly there has been no testing.

Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, state adjutant general and highest homeland security
official, says that DU munitions have never been used in training where
armor piercing is required in Hawai'i and that there is no reason to be
concerned about DU contamination.

"Leuren turned the counter on, and it started out at 30, and soon was up to
40, then 50. Over a two hour period the high was 93."-Big Island resident
Doug Fox
"People don't know the whole story. It's only used to blow up enemy tanks
and armor. Once that is done DU munitions are not used. None of my troops
that were called up even handled DU," he says, referring to National Guard
troops that had been deployed to Iraq.

DU is currently used in tank ammunition, rounds for the A-10 and Harrier
aircraft, Bradley Fighting Vehicle rounds and ammunition for the Navy's
Phalanx CIWS defense system. In 1994, two rounds containing DU were
accidentally fired into the Ko'olau Mountains north of 'Aiea from the
Phalanx. Though no damage or injuries were reported, the rounds were never

The Army also says that depleted uranium munitions are not and have never
been used on the Hawaiian Islands. Though the recent discovery of the tail
assemblies would seem to contradict the official statement, the Army
maintains that the Davy Crocket spotting rounds are a different class of
munitions. It is a subtle semantic separation, but a significant one. It
suggests that while things are clear now, there is no way to know what is
buried beneath the ground. Currently a special license from the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission is required to fire and store DU munitions in the
United States. There are no such permits for any of the military facilities
on the Hawaiian Islands except for the Naval storage magazine at Lualualei.
However, it is unclear whether there was any permit for the Davy Crocket
spotting rounds.

Kamoa Quiteis, the field director of the cultural monitors who supervised
clearance for Styrker Brigade construction and transformation at Schofield
Barracks, was on hand when the first of the tail assemblies were discovered.
(The presence of Cultural Monitors is required by law; they safeguard relics
and sites of special significance.)

"They initially found 15 tail assemblies, but recently they have found
more," he says.

Quiteis explains that while widely circulated rumors of open burning of the
tail assembles are not true, there is regular open burning on the ranges at
Schofield to maintain a clear line of sight. These fires often cause
unexploded ordnance on the range to detonate.

"Our concern is, are the fires aerosolizing these fin assemblies?" Quiteis
says. "And how much DU gets kicked into the air when they do live-fire

Quiteis was also concerned about contamination of streams that feed into
Kaukonahua stream, which flows through taro and other agricultural fields in

A foul wind

In addition to the findings at Schofield, concern has been increasing
recently among residents of the Big Island over possible depleted uranium
contamination. These concerns stem from some elevated radiation readings
obtained on a hand-held Geiger counter. "We had a strange windy day with
winds coming from the direction of Pohakuloa. Leuren (Moret) turned the
counter on, and it started out at 30, and soon was up to 40, then 50. Over a
two hour period the high was 93," said Doug Fox, a Kona resident who was
present when the readings were taken.

Normal readings for Kona, according to Fox, are between two and 15 counts
per minute. "We were quite shocked."

Fox and visiting activist Moret conducted an informal survey from Cape
Kumukahi up through the Saddle Road and the Mauna Loa access measuring soil
and collecting samples. Fox indicated that the elevated readings were
obtained during Stryker maneuvers at Pohakuloa. Findings were broadcast by a
local television news station, but official comment has treated these
findings as an unreliable artifact.

"Something is being released and is impacting a number of people," says Fox.
"We do know that the military said it didn't use DU here, but we know that
it did," referring to the spotting rounds found at Schofield.

In the wake of these findings a citizens' monitoring movement is taking
shape on the Big Island. "I've been running a Geiger counter all the time
for the past two and half weeks. I download all the data.We are trying to
put information out because there is a lot of bogus stuff," says Kona
resident Gunther Monkowski. "I don't want to put out false
far I think [my readings] are still in the natural radiation scope."

Fox also says that he has not been able to replicate the elevated reading.
"It is an anomaly, but when you have an anomaly, you have to investigate it.
I've satisfied myself that it is reality," he says.

The group is working on compiling the results into a database and making
them available to the public. Results should be available soon at

Monkowski says that his meter had the highest possible accuracy and was used
frequently by professionals. Fox told Honolulu Weekly that a number of
people have ordered counters, and so they should soon have five to 12
monitoring stations up and running around Pohakuloa.

The silent treatment

A perceived failure to address the issue does not help the Army's
credibility. Despite a promised interview with Deputy Assistant Secretary of
the Army for Environment, Safety and Occupational Health Tad Davis, the Army
refused to comment for this story.

Davis recently made several appearances in Hawai'i to discuss discarded
munitions at Wai'anae and World War II-era chemical weapons dumps and
expressed a willingness to discuss DU on the record. However, Davis
ultimately did not respond to our requests for an interview.

Previous media accounts indicate that the Army will conduct radiological
testing this summer at Schofield, Makua military reservation and Pohakuloa,
but when this will happen and who will be involved is a mystery. Nor are
there any answers to questions regarding the extent of the Davy Crocket
firings on the Islands or records of these firings. Difficulty in obtaining
information from the military is not an isolated phenomenon, as local NGOs
frequently complain of obscurantism and obstructionism.

"Our concern is, are the fires aerosolizing these fin assemblies? And how
much DU gets kicked into the air when they do live-fire exercises?" -Kamoa

Kyle Kajihiro, program director of the American Friends Service Committee
says the military in Hawai'i has a history of not quite telling the whole
truth. "The problem of something like DU for example comes from the fact
that the military is so pervasive and no one has held them accountable," he
says. "They have too much power, and they tend to abuse it."

Citizens concerned about their health report similar difficulties. "We were
trying to get information about the hazards from the Army, but we never
really got the information," says Quiteis.

Transparency now

If the Army isn't saying anything, though, state officials and local
representatives are taking notice. State Rep. Josh Green (6th District
Kailua-Kona) introduced a bill (HB 1452) during the recently ended
legislative session calling for testing around military reservations in
response to the findings at Schofield.

"We felt very strongly that we ought to know if there is depleted uranium in
the state," Green says.

The bill was subsequently scaled down in committee but was passed by both
the House and Senate before stalling in conference committee due to a lack
of funding. "I encountered no one who was against the bill in principle,"
the state representative adds. "My understanding is that we just ran out of

Green, a medical doctor and legislator known for environment-friendly bills,
says that he would try to get the bill passed next year.

Before HB 1452 stalled out, it ran into opposition from the military and the
state. "The bill wanted to have a state incursion onto federal property,
which we can't do," says Lee, who testified against the bill. "Our intention
was not to kill the bill, but to have the state [Department of Health] work
with the army."

Department of Health (DOH) Program Manager for Noise, Radiation and Indoor
Air Quality Branch Russell Takata explained that the DOH's opposition was
procedural. "It's a legal obstacle for DOH to test on federal property."

"It's really a shame that the Legislature let it die," says Kajihiro, who
testified in support of the bill. "It was a minimal step.but it has helped
to raise the public awareness and stimulate discussion on the issue."

The Health Department has also looked into alleged elevated readings on the
Big Island. Takata says that his department took readings but found nothing
out of the ordinary. "We did go down there, and we will do this
periodically," he says.

Takata welcomes the monitoring efforts of citizens, but urges them to be
aware that their reading my be inaccurate. "It's good in that when there is
some type of emergency there is always an insufficient number of meters," he
says. "However, for precise background measurements they should buy better

According to Takata, many hand-held Geiger counters are not considered by
experts to be accurate in the lower ranges, because they cannot precisely
pick up the energies of hundreds of different radio isotopes that are
naturally occurring. He adds that meters should be calibrated once a year.

Takata's department provides training for first responders and emergency
workers. This includes six hours of classroom instruction and hands-on
training for specific meters, tailored to the types of equipment
participants have. There is no charge for the training, and Takata says the
department would be willing to work with Big Island residents to better
utilize their equipment.

"There have been a lot of claims lately, and a lot is unscientific." Lee
indicated that more testing was required before any action was taken.
"Remnants are still out there," he says of Schofield. "That's why the Army
is coming: to get the information to prepare a remediation strategy."

In response to the readings on the Big Island, the 93rd Weapons of Mass
Destruction Civil Support Team was deployed to take readings and check the
air filters of Humvees. "I'm in charge of homeland security, and so it's of
enormous concern to me," says Lee. "They have the best equipment on the
Islands and could find nothing above background radiation."

Local groups want the military to be more forthcoming and to cooperate in
testing. They say at the very least the state should be involved. "A
suitable solution would be for the state to participate in every level and
to be a partner at every step of the way," says Marti Townsend of KAHEA, The
Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, a coalition of environmental and native
Hawaiian advocates throughout the Islands.

"We're having to take health protection efforts into our own hands," says
Townsend of the Geiger counter movement.

However, for many citizens, nothing short of completely independent testing
and monitoring will suffice. Lorrin Pang, a consultant with the World Health
Organization, is suspicious of official statements. "You really have to pin
[the Army] down," Pang says. "What are they really saying? It's always

Pang echoes the sentiment of many on the Big Island, calling for
independent, unannounced testing.

"There must be transparency," he says. "Give us references. Don't tell us
what you think."

Pang served for 24 years in the Army Medical Corp and says he is familiar
with the bureaucracy. He says, "I've seen how this system works. I don't
love it, and I don't hate it. I just know how it can be."

So, it's clear that DU has been used on the Islands. It will probably
continue to pop up from time to time. The danger of the old assemblies is
debatable. It's also likely that radiation readings on the Big Island can be
attributed to calibration or user errors, rather than surreptitious and
illegal use of DU munitions. Likely is by no means certainly, though. DU is
just the latest chapter in a long saga, and it is telling that Hawai'i has
learned to keep one eye on its military tenants. 

Keith Bettinger can be reached at [email: kisu1492]"

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Blogger Geedubya said...

Dozens of properly conducted studies have concluded that DU is of very little concern to human health.

You'd be far better off to devote your efforts to stop smoking campaigns.

8:03 PM  

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