Residents accuse Army of covering up contamination
DEPLETED URANIUM: ‘The burden should be on the Army’
By NANCY COOK LAUER
WES T HAWAII TODAY
HILO — Four Hawaii residents charged the U.S. Army with trying to cover up its discovery of depleted uranium and then taking a cavalier attitude about cleaning it up during a five-hour hearing Wednesday before a panel of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Army is seeking an after-the-fact license to possess the radioactive material that was used in weapons training at Schofield Barracks on Oahu and Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island. The DU spotting rounds were used in the 1960s and have been emitting low levels of radiation since.
The Army contends the radiation is too low to pose a safety hazard.
“We’ve been open, transparent and we believe accountable with the steps we have taken,” said Lt. Col. Kent Herring, representing the Army’s Environmental Litigation Division. “The Army has kept the public informed. …There’s no purposeful withholding.”
But the Army’s contention is disputed by the petitioners, Kurtistown resident and peace activist Jim Albertini; Cory Harden, representing the Sierra Club; and two Native Hawaiians: Isaac Harp, of Waimea, and Luwella Leonardi, of Waianae, Oahu.
They say the Army has never proven the radiation is not harming those who live and travel near the military installations and they criticized the Army for sampling less than 1 percent of the 133,000-acre PTA installation off Saddle Road between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.
“The burden should be on the Army to prove no harm. The Army says there is no harm because they haven’t looked and don’t want to look,” said Albertini. “A license to possess depleted uranium is a nuclear waste dump.”
The three-member Atomic Safety and Licensing Board grilled the Hawaii residents, Army staff and NRC staffers alike. A decision on whether the petitioners have standing to participate in the license application will be made next month.
The petitioners participated by videoconference from a cramped video booth at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, while the federal officials participated from a Rockville, Md., hearing room.
Both the Army and NRC staff attorneys contend the petitioners didn’t prove they have a right to intervene in the license application process. Just living nearby is not enough, they said. Nor did the residents prove there is greater health risks to them because of the Army’s actions.
“Their claims cannot be entirely speculative,” said NRC staff attorney Kimberly Sexton.
Harp was hesitant to believe the Army’s position that there was no health hazard associated with the DU contamination. He noted that the military has a long history of conducting biological and chemical warfare experiments on the Big Island under code names such as Blue Tango, Yellow Leaf, Green Mist and Tall Timber.
“No one knows how many may have become ill, disabled or died from these experiments because only the military and their partners knew about them,” Harp said.
Harden produced documents showing the government knew about the DU at Schofield as early as 1996, not 2005 as the Army claims.
“I think if it was gold and not radioactivity, I think they would have found a lot more of it,” Harden said.
Even the administrative judges weren’t completely satisfied with the Army’s position that it was using a conservative estimate of how many rounds were even used at the two sites. The Army can account for 714 rounds — containing 299 pounds of DU — shipped to Hawaii. But it doesn’t know if that’s all that was sent to the state, because the records have been lost.
“I’m still troubled by the uncertainty of the numbers,” said Judge Anthony Baratta.
Herring said the Army is not dumping any DU contaminated soil off-site, but it has started collecting some of it into 55-gallon drums that are being stored at Schofield.
And Herring said all live round exercises now under way at the two sites do not fire high explosives into the contaminated areas, but they do use 50-caliber machine guns, spotting rounds that have just enough explosive to create a puff of smoke and 120 mm mortar rounds.
“No high-explosive rounds will be fired into DU areas,” Herring said.