The Navy’s Toxic Legacy, Part 2

Davy Crockett Weapons System from 1960s

A soldier readies a depleted uranium-tipped projectile on an Army base firing range. This 1960s-era weapons system was called “Davy Crockett.” Thousands of pounds of DU fragments and dust remain lying in the open on bases throughout the US, and multiple tons of it are lying on the sea floor in coastal waters.

October 31, 2016 – Investigative reporter Dahr Jamail has written another exposé on the Navy’s use of depleted uranium in Pacific Northwest waters. There are many disturbing revelations, among them:

  • The Navy did not phase out DU in 2008 as it claimed in a public EIS (Environmental Impact Statement.) In fact, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that DU was still being shipped from Naval Magazine Indian Island in Puget Sound in 2011, and that guns were being modified/designed to continue using it.
  • The Navy continues to claim that DU dumped in the ocean is no more harmful than any other heavy metal. They cite a study done by a British military contractor that actually does not support their claim.
  • This UK study states that there are 31 tons of DU lying on the seabed in one firing range. The Navy’s use of DU in our own waters was at a similar rate, and calculations based on number of rounds of just one type of cannon shell fired indicate there could be 34 tons of DU in our waters, starting as close as 12 miles from shore. This would not include DU the Navy fired in other types of munitions.
  • Nearly a thousand pounds of depleted uranium fragments and dust are lying in the open at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington’s Pierce County, and the Army has a new permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to let it all stay there. According to a government permit, 12,566 pounds of pure DU scattered in fragments and dust, across 20 US bases, with questionable oversight.
  • Health effects on not just humans but also wildlife and the ecosystem we depend on are flying under the public’s radar, but should be of great concern. For example, the lung cancer rate in Pierce County, where Joint Base Lewis-McChord is located, is one of the highest in the state. Read the article for details.
Navy Warning Area-237

As much as 34 tons of depleted uranium lies in area W-237, starting 12 miles from shore.

The Navy and Army aren’t the only ones, either. Air Force bases and other branches of the armed services have even more depleted uranium. Eglin AFB in Florida, for example, asked for authorization to decommission a DU test area, and reported 3200 kg, or 7,054 pounds of DU in one 4-acre test area. That translates to 198 grams of DU per square meter! The in-soil concentration alone rivaled the average concentration of natural uranium ores mined in the US.

Can DU remain on the ground harmlessly? Not if dust blows into surrounding communities, or it leaches into the groundwater to contaminate soils and drinking water, or the soil on which it lies erodes and is washed into waterbodies, or new rounds hit DU debris or dust, pulverizing and spreading it further. According to a recent study, “Depleted uranium introduces large quantities of radioactive material that is hazardous to biological organisms, continues to decay for millennia and is able to travel tens of kilometres in air.”

And what about when the military does “controlled burns” in order to torch unwanted vegetation growth on firing ranges where DU fragments are laying? Why wouldn’t the intense heat and updrafts cause DU particles to become airborne? A recent independent study concluded, “The annual dose limit for the population can be exceeded within a few years from DU deposition for soil inhalation.”

According to a safety report published by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the duty of the person in charge of radioactive DU lying on the ground at military bases is to “ensure that occupational and public doses are as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA).” But “ALARA” standards referenced by NRC in this report apply to radiation workers, such as medical X-ray techs. They don’t apply to the general public living in communities nearby, which is borne out by the fact that the phrase “public dose” is mentioned ten times more often than the phrase “public health.”

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