The U.S. Army has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for an exemption from the need to obtain a license to possess toxic depleted uranium at Schofield Barracks and the Big Island’s Pohakuloa Training Area.
If the exemption is not granted, the Army believes the license “should only address possession and decommissioning,” according to Lt. General Michael Ferriter in a Sep. 10 letter to the NRC. “No restrictions or requirements should be placed upon the Army,” Ferriter wrote.
The Army long denied using depleted uranium (DU) in Hawaii, but Earthjustice came across emails to the contrary in 2006. Radioactive material was present in weapons used for training in Hawaii and at least eight other states in the 1960s. In 2008, the Army applied to the NRC for an after-the-fact license to possess a maximum of 17,600 pounds of DU on its U.S. bases. Construction plans related to the Stryker Brigade training area and in the “hot area” at Schofield have been stalled while the Army’s application is being processed.
Conditions to be met for the NRC’s proposed license include avoiding the use of high-explosives in areas where DU may be present, developing radiation monitoring plans and conducting continuous air monitoring.
The Army opposes these conditions as too expensive, unnecessary and an impediment to troop readiness. “The Army cannot prove the negative,” Ferriter wrote. “If some small amount [of DU] is leaving the radiation control area, testing has shown that the amount is too small to be measured by any reasonable means.”
Community activists cite concerns that DU is particularly hazardous when it becomes airborne after being ignited by live fire. The Hawaii County Council has asked the Army to cease live fire training in areas contaminated with DU.
“The Army blatantly disregards the health and safety of the people of Hawaii, our visitors, and even their own soldiers,” wrote Big Island fisherman Isaac Harp in an email to the Weekly. “The Army goes to absurd [lengths] by suggesting that they don’t even need a license to possess their DU contamination in Hawaii. They apparently view themselves as better qualified than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, [which is] the federal regulatory agency responsible by law to ensure public health and safety related to nuclear waste such as DU.”
In addition, Harp and others want the NRC to require the Army to conduct a more thorough search for DU in Hawaii. The Army acknowledged in its license application that rough terrain and hazards presented by unexploded ordnance made it impossible to conduct a thorough survey for DU at Pohakuloa and Schofield.
“Apparently, the Army has adopted a ‘don’t look–don’t find’ policy related to monitoring their 1960’s era depleted uranium (DU) contamination in Hawaii,” Harp wrote. “The Army has yet to find [all] the DU they admit to using in Hawaii, yet they continue live-fire training in potentially contaminated areas. The army could be liberating hazardous DU particulates into the air we breath. I hope the visitors that support our number one economic engine [don’t] hear about this, or Hawaii could be tossed into the days of the Great Depression!”
After Harp pressed the NRC to take enforcement action against the Army, the agency found the Army had violated federal regulations by possessing DU without a license. During the NRC’s investigation, it was further revealed that the Army had conducted an unauthorized cleanup of DU-contaminated soil at Schofield in 2008. But last year, the NRC waived the $3,500 civil fine and instead gave the Army credit for its “corrective actions,” including its having applied for an after-the-fact license, and adopting measures to control access to areas suspected to contain DU.
The NRC is now accepting public comments on the Army’s position.