You could say the debate was heated. On Mar. 21, the state senators who sit on the Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee took issue with the U.S. Army’s use of depleted uranium munitions at Schofield Barracks on Oahu and a proposed bill that would require soil testing in the area.
House Bill 1452 originally called for the testing of soil within 500 feet of all military bases throughout Hawai`i. The process would be used to determine the presence of radioactive material in the soil that could have been deposited by the firing of the weapons.
Depleted uranium (DU) is a toxic byproduct of nuclear enrichment. The remaining material is called U-238. The material is extremely dense, which is why the military likes using it for armor piercing munitions, though other materials like tungsten—which is not radioactive—apparently work just as well. DU can cause serious health problems if absorbed through the skin, but its greatest risk comes from ingestion or inhalation.
DU self-ignites when exposed to temperatures above 600 degrees Fahrenheit. This is easily achieved when it is fired through armor. When the DU breaks into pieces, it can spontaneously burst into flames, leaving behind a fine radioactive dust, which is easily carried on the wind. What doesn’t blow away will settle into the soil or get washed into streams or other water sources.
For many years the military maintained that it had never used DU in Hawai`i. Then in 2005 officials admitted that they had fired considerable DU munitions at the Schofield Range Complex. The evidence came to light when a contractor hired to clear the area wrote an email to an Army official detailing the unexpected burden of dealing with the munitions.
The Senate committee has already changed HB 1452, removing a provision for air and water and limiting testing to just Schofield.
“I personally feel that rather then see the bill killed we’d change it,” says Senator Lorraine Inouye (D, 1st District), who chairs the committee. “Originally it was asking for too much.”
For those who favor of the bill, the general consensus is that it does not do enough to address the problem, but is nonetheless necessary. It “keep[s] the issue alive,” Senator Shan Tsutsui (D, 4th District) says.
When the bill passed out of committee, it did so under the disapproving glare of Senator Fred Hemmings (R, 25th District).
“This whole hearing process was an indictment against the military,” Hemmings said. “None of the testifiers were from the military.”
The state Department of Health (DOH) has concerns of its own. Should the bill be made into law, the DOH would oversee the military personnel carrying out the testing process.
“There are no certified labs in Hawai`i to do this kind of testing,” says Laurence Lau, DOH’s Deputy Director for Environmental Health Administration. “They are expensive and would have to be sent to the mainland.” He estimates that the testing would cost $5 million a year.
“I think the military should deal with the problem,” Lau says.
Bill 1452’s next stop in the coming weeks is the Senate Ways and Means Committee. While the committee has killed similar bills in the past, this one shows some promise. Senator Rosalyn Baker (D, 5th District), the committee’s chair, voted for it in the Health committee last week. MTW