Activists want depleted-uranium
Military's exemption is challenged
By LARRY JOHNSON, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Foreign Desk Editor
Thursday, December 4, 2003
Four activist groups, including one in Poulsbo, have launched a nationwide campaign to force the Pentagon to label shipments of depleted uranium munitions.
" The United States military does not want civilian populations to know how and when depleted uranium munitions are being shipped through their communities for fear of what the military calls 'unnecessary public concern about the radiation risks associated with DU munitions,' "according to Glen Milner, of the Ground Zero Center for Non-violent Action in Poulsbo.
Milner said that normally this type of shipment would be labeled with Department of Transportation "radioactive" and "explosive" signs. Branches of the military, however, have a special exemption, which allows them to ship DU munitions without the "radioactive" placard. The exemption, which must be renewed every few years, expires June 30.
Milner estimates that the military makes about 2,000 shipments of DU munitions annually to various facilities.
The Pentagon doesn't like to talk about the shipments, but Daniel Carlson, a spokesman for the Army Field Support Command, acknowledged that the Army alone sent about 195 shipments of DU munitions within the continental United States in the past 12 months. He said because of security concerns, such details as where the shipments came from and where they went could not be disclosed.
Milner said he hopes Ground Zero and the other groups in the campaign -- Traprock Peace Center in Massachusetts; the Military Toxics Project in Maine; and Nukewatch in Wisconsin -- can help bring about enough public pressure to force the government to decide not to renew the next application for exemption by the Military Traffic Management Command, a branch of the Department of Defense.
" By understanding the danger of shipping DU through our neighborhoods, we will better understand the damage done by firing DU in neighborhoods in other countries in our name," said Milner, who said he would like to see a ban on the use of all DU ammunition. "
Depleted uranium is an extremely toxic material and much more dangerous when shipped with an explosive propellant as is the case of DU munitions," he said.
The Pentagon has said there have been no known health problems associated with the munitions. At the same time, the military acknowledges the hazards in an Army training manual, which requires that anyone who comes within 25 meters of any DU-contaminated equipment or terrain wear respiratory and skin protection, and says that "contamination will make food and water unsafe."
Critics of DU say they fear it is responsible for a significant increase in cancer and birth defects in regions where the munitions have been used and say it is a prime suspect in Gulf War Syndrome, the still-unexplained malady that has plagued thousands of Gulf War veterans.
Milner said a simple traffic accident could render DU shipments dangerous.
When DU burns it turns into highly toxic and extremely fine uranium dust that can be spread in the air, inhaled and absorbed into the human body and absorbed by plants and animals, becoming part of the food chain.
Once lodged in the soil, the munitions can pollute the environment and create up to a hundredfold increase in uranium levels in groundwater, according to the U.N. Environmental Program.
Milner also cited an incident where DU rounds were shipped to an unauthorized recipient; an incident he said could have been more easily remedied if the shipment had been clearly labeled.
In 2001, the Coast Guard received a shipment of DU in downtown Seattle. The Coast Guard, however, is not licensed to use DU munitions. Days later, when the mistake was noticed, the DU was handed over to the Navy, which took it to a storage facility at Port Hadlock.
" If an explosion or fire had occurred while the ammunition was stored in downtown Seattle, the spread of toxic and radioactive DU dust could have been disastrous," Milner said.
Through Freedom of Information Act requests, Milner has identified several other locations where the Navy stores DU: San Diego; Seal Beach, Calif.; Crane, Ind.; Indian Head, Md.; Colts Neck, N.J.; Hawthorne, Nev.; McAlister, Okla.; Charlestown, S.C.; Tooele, Utah; Dahlgreen, Va.; Norfolk, Va; Sewells Point, Va.; and Yorktown, Va.
In addition, there are 10 bulk-storage facilities for ammunition scattered across the United States -- each with a capacity for storing more than 11,000 tons of DU ammunition.
In the original 1986 request for an exemption to the Department of Transportation requirement of signs stating a shipment is "radioactive," obtained by Milner, the Defense Department said there are three reasons for transporting DU munitions without drawing public attention.
· "Marking the outside of the DU munitions containers as radioactive may create friction with foreign governments when foreign nations handle DU munitions during ship loading or unloading."
· "We do not want to generate unnecessary public concern about the radiation risks associated with DU munitions."
· By placing signs on trucks reading "radioactive" and "explosive" together it would "raise public concerns" that nuclear weapons were being shipped.
The document states further that there would be no increased risk to the public by not labeling the shipments radioactive, because "in the unlikely event of an accident or incident involving transportation of DU munitions, the DOD maintains Explosive Ordinance Disposal teams nationwide trained in the health hazards associated with DU munitions." "
These teams are capable of responding on short notice with protective equipment and radiation survey instruments," it said.
But Milner counters with this: "In case of a fire, first responders, the local police and firefighters, would have no idea the shipment contained radioactive material."
ON THE WEB:
Ground Zero Center for Non-violent Action: www.gzcenter.org
Traprock Peace Center: www.traprockpeace.org
Military Toxics Project: www.miltoxproj.org
U.S. Department of Defense: www.defenselink.mil/