Concern rising over uranium at Schofield
Funding is the main obstacle to a bill that requires testing the soil for toxins
Revelations in the past few years that depleted uranium was used at Schofield Barracks as far back as the 1960s has state lawmakers pushing a proposal to find out how prevalent the chemical agent remains today.
House Bill 1452 would require the Department of Health to conduct quarterly tests of soil samples within 500 meters* of Schofield to assess for depleted uranium.
The proposal is headed to conference committee, where House and Senate lawmakers would work out the differences in their respective versions of the bill and determine how much money to allocate for the project.
Original estimates were thought to be about $5 million, but that was for testing air, soil and water at all military sites around the state. The latest version of the bill is focused solely on soil surrounding Schofield, with cost estimates of about $100,000.
"It's a fundamental question of public safety and public health," said House Health Chairman Josh Green (D, Keauhou-Honokohau), who introduced the bill in the House. "If there's depleted uranium that our people are being exposed to, we ought to know.
"At this point, I trust the military that there's not, but let's just be safe."
Depleted uranium, a byproduct of radioactive enriched uranium, has been used by the U.S. military in armor-piercing munitions.
Some researchers suspect exposure to depleted uranium, or DU, might have caused chronic fatigue and other symptoms in veterans of the first Gulf War, but there is no conclusive evidence it has.
Other studies have linked radiation exposure from depleted uranium to health problems such as scarring and genetic mutations that can lead to cancer, infertility and birth defects, according to the bill.
"The health effects of depleted uranium weaponry are complex and at best unknown," said Dr. Lorrin Pang, state health administrator on Maui and a retired Army doctor, in testimony on the bill.
He said that when a weapon is exploded, heavier metal particles tend to settle around the site, but other chemical compounds can become airborne.
"There is no doubt that much of the weaponized DU will be aerosolized, converted to insoluble forms, travel great distances and possibly inhaled," he said. "This bill should be passed so that we can begin screening for DU weaponry in Hawaii."
In August 2005, a contractor performing work in preparation of Schofield's conversion to a Stryker brigade force discovered 15 tail assemblies from spotting rounds made with depleted uranium.
Army officials had said the recovered depleted uranium had low-level radioactivity and did not pose a public health threat. They were believed to be remnants from training rounds used in a now-obsolete weapon system used in the 1960s.
Environmental, preservationist and anti-military groups have led the call for testing to determine what lingering effects might exist from depleted uranium.
"The state has a duty to find out about the presence of DU in our environment and to take action to protect its citizens," said Jim Albertini of the Malu Aina Center for Non-violent Education and Action. "We must not tolerate having any depleted uranium in our environment, nor allow our Hawaii soldiers or citizens to be exposed to DU."
As the bill has advanced, the only opposition has come from the Department of Health, but only because of the fiscal implications. The department says it does not have the staffing, instrumentation or money to conduct the soil sampling.
State Health Director Chiyome Fukino also testified that the under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has sole authority over depleted uranium and its licensees. She added that state monitoring of the issue has been coordinated with the federal agency and the Army.
House Bill 1452 has sailed through both chambers with virtually no opposition.
As lawmakers determine a funding amount, Green, the House Health chairman and an emergency room physician, said that even the original estimate of $5 million may be worthwhile.
"I've seen people run up bills on the order of magnitude of $5 million because they've had cancers and chemotherapy and lost wages," he said. "We're talking about not just our generation if there's depleted uranium, but our children, our grandchildren and 50 generations later.
"It might be the best investment we ever made."
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
» Under a proposal still alive in the Legislature, the Health Department would be required to test for depleted uranium in soil samples taken within 500 meters of Schofield Barracks. A story on Page A8 Saturday said 500 miles.