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The Navy’s Use of Depleted Uranium in Our Coastal Waters Threatens Humans, Wildlife

The Navy told Truthout that the depleted uranium in its munitions was “extremely stable,” contrary to the science.

Naval gunners inspect ammunition containing depleted uranium in a photo taken on November 1, 1987. (Photo: US Navy)

Part of the Series

Earlier this month, Truthout reported that the US Navy is knowingly introducing toxic metals and chemicals into the environment during its war game exercises.

Sheila Murray with the Navy Region Northwest’s public affairs office, when asked what the Navy was doing to mitigate environmental contamination from the large numbers of Depleted Uranium (DU) rounds it left on the seabed off the Pacific Northwest Coast claimed current research “does not suggest short- or long-term effects” from the release of DU to the environment that could result in its uptake by marine organisms.”

She also said that DU rounds “are extremely stable in sea water and pose no greater threat than any other metal.”

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In response to this, Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an environmental toxicologist and winner of the 2015 Rachel Carson Prize environmental award for her work on DU and heavy metal contamination, told Truthout, “The US Navy representative’s views exhibit an alarming level of amnesia.”

She said this because Murray’s statement has been one that has been recycled by the Navy for years. Reuters reported in January 2003 that the Navy confirmed its use of DU shells in arms tests off the Washington State coast, at which time the Navy claimed, “The DU rounds dissolve so slowly that they would not contribute to naturally occurring (radiation) levels … and do not pose a significant risk.”

Meanwhile, ample scientific reports — including Savabieasfahani’s own research — demonstrate the deleterious health impacts caused by DU.

“When those bullets and bombs explode, dangerous nanoparticles of metals, including uranium nanoparticles, are released into the environment,” she explained to Truthout. “Laboratory research has already established that exposure to environmentally relevant concentrations of uranium has negative impacts on fish embryogenesis, and on the reproductive success of fish.”

Naval documents show that as much as 34 tons of DU could be present on the seabed just 12 miles from the outer coast of Washington State.

Even more distressing, the Navy’s own documents reveal that the extent of its use of DU off the coast of the US is far more pervasive than it admits to the public.

And results of a Freedom of Information Act filing provided to Truthout show that the Navy, which claims in its environmental impact statements it has not used DU since 2008, has actually shipped it from a Puget Sound munitions area as recently as 2011.

A Bogus Study

The Navy’s public affairs officer, Murray, also told Truthout that a “recent study” of an area off the south coast of England that was used for test firing DU rounds “did not show presence of DU in sample of intertidal and ocean bottom sediments, seaweed, mussels, and locally caught lobster and scallops. (Toque, 2006).”

However, the study Murray cites — and which the Navy consistently cites when arguing that DU is not harmful — is heavily disputed.

Carol Van Strum, an Oregon-based environmental advocate who has researched DU for years, told Truthout that Murray’s statement is “an out-and-out lie.”

Van Strum, who has read the Toque study closely and knows it well, pointed out that, for starters, the study’s author works for a British military contractor. She went on to point out two very serious flaws in the study.

“While the study relied on ‘locally caught’ lobster and scallops as samples for testing for depleted uranium, the samples were never ‘caught’ but rather bought in a local market, and thus could have come from anywhere,” Van Strum explained. “Second, and most worrisome … the actual study reports depleted uranium contamination in nearly all of the samples.”

The Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the matter claims “the survey results show no evidence of DU being present in any marine environmental sample collected in the year 2004.”

But Van Strum called their claim “incontrovertibly false” because the study itself stated it had found DU contamination in the soil in many areas where the military was operating cannons, in the soil where ordnance had been fired, and in the soil, sea water and marine life where the ordnance they had fired had landed.

“The study’s methodology would not pass muster for even a high school science project,” Van Strum said.

Karen Sullivan, a retired endangered species biologist who co-founded the website West Coast Action Alliance that acts as a watchdog of Naval activities in the Pacific Northwest, questioned why the Navy would open itself up to accusations of bias by relying on only a single study done by someone who works for a group affiliated with the British military.

“Why would the Navy rely on such a flawed and obviously biased study to ‘prove’ that DU in seawater poses no threat greater than any other metal?” Sullivan, who worked at the US Fish and Wildlife Service for more than 15 years and who is an expert in the bureaucratic procedures the Navy is supposed to be following, asked in an interview with Truthout. “Probably because the enormous body of properly conducted and unbiased science completely refutes it.”

Van Strum went on to point out additional significant problems with the study, including the almost laughable procurement and use of the samples.

“For starters, the entire sampling of marine organisms consisted of a bucket of mussels, 0.9 kg of shelled scallops, and three lobsters,” Van Strum explained. “In a section straight out of Monty Python, named ‘Seafood purchase methodology,’ the author reports with a straight face that the three lobsters and the scallops were bought in a shop in Kirkcudbright, ‘and boiled within a day of purchase’.”

Yet even in what was obviously a bogus sample, both uranium and DU were found.

“Not even truly creative data contortions support the [Navy’s] ‘no evidence of DU’ conclusion,” Van Strum said. “For example, all uranium found in the shelled, cooked mussels was attributed by legerdemain [sleight of hand] to bits of uranium-contaminated sediment or shell that ‘may have accidentally contaminated’ the meat. And even after the high level of uranium in one of three lobsters was reduced 81 percent — applying a completely unreferenced and phenomenally high dry/wet weight ratio — the level was still twice the mean for all of the UK, at which point the author simply concludes that ‘such a low concentration is not deemed significant’.”

Additionally, a 2007 Naval Budget Proposal, shows a gun being upgraded to fire 25mm DU rounds (see page 32). According to the proposal, there were over 100 guns of this type for that year. These facts beg the question: How could the Navy possibly be “phasing out” DU, as it claims to be doing?

Human Health Impacts of DU “Quite Relevant” to Naval Exercises

“Navy exercises in the waters of the Pacific Northwest will release contaminants into the marine environment, with an undeniable potential to harm human health,” Savabieasfahani said, noting that this would apply even to low-level amounts of DU being introduced into the oceans. “It is long established that explosives can contaminate soil, sediment and water and thereby impact environmental and human health.”

She explained that the human and environmental impacts of the Navy’s use of DU in past exercises is “quite relevant,” and cited a report that showed how DU exposure has been linked to lower cognitive ability in adults.

“This leads us to expect much worse impacts on growing children, newborns and infants — to say nothing of unborn babies,” Savabieasfahani added. “Furthermore, epidemiological evidence is also consistent with an increased risk of birth defects in the children of people exposed to DU.”

She also heavily emphasized the fact that the internalization of uranium in any form will result in both chemical and radiation exposure.

“Once inside a living body, DU and uranium’s effects are virtually the same,” Savabieasfahani explained. “This is a point worth repeating.”

Moreover, Savabieasfahani emphasized that it’s dangerous to guesstimate “safe” levels of DU, whether or not it reaches levels determined to be “toxic.”

“Our knowledge of the human health impacts of DU is consistent with laboratory studies of other mammals,” she said. “DU exposure affects neurogenesis during prenatal and postnatal brain development by disrupting patterns of cell proliferation and cell death. Even sub-toxic levels of DU have been shown to alter brain function.”

She also took issue with Murray’s argument, which Savabieasfahani described as, essentially, “the solution to pollution is dilution.” This is the nuclear industry’s default argument about radiation and other forms of pollution, and has been for decades, despite the fact that this logic was “decisively rejected” more than 40 years ago. Savabieasfahani pointed out that even Richard Nixon’s EPA administrator, William Ruckelshaus, rejected the dilution argument in a 1972 Congressional testimony regarding the Clean Water Act.

Savabieasfahani noted that any upcoming Naval exercises that introduce heavy metals and other pollutants, regardless of whether they use DU, will increase the environmental “background burden” of DU and other pollutants.

“Increasing that burden is simply irresponsible,” Savabieasfahani said. “Seabed pollutants have already found their way into our bodies. Those pollutants will continue to impact the most vulnerable populations — infants, newborns and growing children — most profoundly, and their imprint will be found in the baby teeth of our children.”

Other Instances of DU

Problems with DU in the Pacific Northwest are not limited to the Navy.

At Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord, as well as the Yakima Training Center, there has not been any cleanup of contaminated areas or disposal of dangerous rounds, despite confirmed reports of contamination in nearby areas. It is also worth noting that, while no direct link has been proven, the lung cancer rate for Pierce County, Washington, where Lewis-McChord Base is located, is among the highest in the entire state.

Truthout asked Sullivan to comment on this. She pointed out that rather than cleaning up these areas, the US Army requested a “master permit” from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) “to leave in place — laying on the surface — all the DU munitions and bombs it has ever fired, since 1960, at nearly 20 bases throughout the United States.”

That permit was granted in March. It includes Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where, according to Sullivan, 750 pounds of pure DU are lying on open grounds, in fragments and inhalable dust. This is significant: DU dust tends to blow around and leach into groundwater, contaminating both soil and drinking water.

According to the permit, 12,566 pounds of DU fragments and dust remain, lying out in the open, across military bases throughout the US.

Furthermore, a March 2016 “Safety Report” by the NRC shows that the commission never required the Army to collect and dispose of DU debris. It also noted that the Army asked to not be required to disclose the qualifications of each base’s Garrison Radiation Safety Officer (RSO) any time there was a change in personnel, “for privacy and administrative burden reasons.”

The NRC agreed to forego that requirement. This means that the NRC will not know the qualifications of each base’s RSO unless it specifically asks for it, so it is possible that an RSO may not even be qualified as a radiation safety expert.

All of these factors add up to an extremely disconcerting situation, given that a recent independent study states clearly, “The annual dose limit for the population can be exceeded within a few years from DU deposition for soil inhalation.”

Sullivan is concerned that, while the Army takes at least some precautions towards preventing troop exposure, “actual public health is given short shrift.”

“For what it’s worth, the phrase ‘public health’ is mentioned only once in the entire Safety Report, in reference to a regulation,” Sullivan said. “The phrase ‘public dose’ is mentioned 10 times.”

Lastly, to screen for groundwater contamination, the Army has proposed to sample some wells near its bases. However, the NRC noted, “The Army states that the DU concentration in groundwater coming from soil depends on several factors, which they have not measured for any RCA (Radiation Controlled Area).”

Sullivan expressed grave concern over the fact that the Army has not measured for radiation in these areas.

“Then how would they know?” she asked. “Perhaps it’s a way to justify the perennial statement the public has come to expect from so-called ‘public processes’ that always end in false platitudes like the one the Army delivered: They concluded that groundwater or any other contamination is ‘not significant’.”

While it remains unclear if DU is still being used by the Navy or Army, what is clear is that they are not sufficiently cleaning up the DU they have already introduced into the environment, nor are they taking steps to mitigate its potential harm to their own soldiers, the general population, and the environment.

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