Cover Story


Airborne

The lowdown on depleted uranium in Hawai‘i

Cover

Cover image for Jun 13, 2007

‘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 threat.

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 archipelago.

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 recovered.

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 exercises?’

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

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 dataÖWe 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 informationÖso 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 [www.world-peace-society.org].

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 Quiteis

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 funds.’

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 stepÖbut 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 equipment.’

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 vague.’

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]‘