Updated at 11:19 a.m., Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Depleted uranium at Pohakuloa no threat to public, Army report says
By Nancy Cook Lauer
West Hawaii Today
HILO – A preliminary study completed by the military earlier this month finds no threat to the public from depleted uranium at the Pohakuloa Training Area.
The study is part of a U.S. Army licensing application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a site-specific environmental radiation monitoring plan. Public hearings are planned for next month and then there will be a comment period before a safe-handling license is issued.
So far, only three pieces of the radioactive material have been found at Pohakuloa and it is believed that the remainder, if there was any, likely fell into the cracks in the lava, the report says.
Environmentalists, however, remain skeptical.
Sierra Club member Cory Harden says she’d like to see the military experts in a forum that includes other scientists who may dispute their findings, such as Maui resident Dr. Lorrin Pang, a former Army doctor and World Health Organization consultant and Mike Reimer, a Kona resident who served 10 years as head of research at the School of Mines in Golden, Colo., after a 25-year stint on a uranium project with the U.S. Geological Service.
“The Army is prepared to say there’s no significant harm from the DU, but they’re not prepared to back it up in a public forum, and that concerns me,” Harden said.
The Army suspected DU at Pohakuloa after research stemming from the 2005 discovery of the munitions at Schofield Barracks on Oahu led to records showing that 714 spotting rounds for the now obsolete Davy Crockett weapons systems were shipped to Hawaii sometime in the early 1960s.
The Hawaii County Council last year passed a nonbinding resolution requesting the military halt live-fire training exercises at PTA until it was determined if depleted uranium was there. The Army, however, has not stopped exercises.
Howard Sugai, chief public affairs officer for the Army’s Pacific region, said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will help the Army establish procedures to deal with the DU.
“They will establish the guidelines,” Sugai said. “The NRC will issue us the policies, the procedures, the protocols on which we manage depleted uranium on our ranges.”
The Army’s monitoring plan must characterize conditions at each site where depleted uranium has been found and identify possible exposure pathways, changes in site use and any off-range migration of DU to the surrounding environment.
The Army document says a baseline human health risk assessment wasn’t completed because so little DU has been found at the site, and air and soil samples don’t show elevated levels of radiation.
“To this point, the Army has only found three DU rounds at PTA. This is not surprising given the geological conditions at the site,” the July 8 report says. “If any significant quantity of DU was fired at PTA, it is expected to have quickly migrated through the pahoehoe and aa basalt flows and is no longer detectable at the surface.”
Reimer said the migration theory “made me giggle.”
“On the basis of that study, they can’t come to that conclusion,” Reimer said. “That document they sent to the NRC I think was extremely superficial and often contradictory.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission plans to take public comments at meetings on Oahu on Aug. 24 and in Hilo and Kona on Aug. 27. The agency will then publish a notice in the Federal Register, giving the public 60 days to submit comments in writing.
Officials said they still don’t know the extent of the DU ordnance used on the island, but said such munitions are not being used currently, nor is there a plan to. The research is tedious because records are not easily accessible, but the work continues, they said.
Experts with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state Department of Health and the University of Hawaii, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Office of Army Safety have said the radiation is low enough to make risks to the public and environment extremely unlikely.
Measurements have ranged from 3 to 9 micro-R – low-level gamma radiation – an hour, which is considered safe background radiation coming from natural sources, according to the military. In comparison, radiation must reach 2,000 micro-R an hour before it is considered “actionable,” and the Health Department gets people out of the area.
But some Big Island residents who have attended meetings on the issue are not ready to take the military at face value. Even the number of rounds that may have been fired at PTA has been unclear.
“I certainly hope the NRC can pin this stuff down,” Harden said.