FOIA documents show Fort Lewis used depleted uranium munitions in 1960s


No clean up of contamination or disposal of the dangerous rounds can be confirmed

For many years, local environmentalists and veterans’ groups have wondered if depleted uranium has been used on the artillery firing range inside Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), the largest military base on the West Coast. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that the base used depleted uranium rounds, which contain a radioactive, toxic heavy metal, in the 1960s. Army officials deny links to confirmed radon contamination, and are unsure when cleanup procedures will begin.

The history

In 2008, the Army became aware of a dangerous environmental hazard based on the 1962 shipment of 1,756 20mm Davy Crockett M101 spotting rounds to what was then called Fort Lewis. (The Army Fort merged with McChord Air Base in 2010 to form Joint Base Lewis McCord-JBLM). The M101 is a depleted uranium (DU)-based round “used to estimate firing trajectory” and it is a low-grade radioactive threat. This particular shipment was checked into the weapons supply roster and subsequently lost.

DU is a radioactive industrial waste-material that is derived from the enrichment process of natural uranium, an “alpha-emitting, radioactive, heavy metal.” Because DU is denser than other metals, it is used for projectiles (shells and bullets) to penetrate armor. Its material, Uranium-238, has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. It is highly volatile, and it is currently somewhere in the soil at JBLM. The Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses estimates that DU “is 40 percent less radioactive than the uranium in the raw uranium-bearing ores.”

Based on the Nuclear Weapons Training regulations, as well as the Army Use Guidelines of Davy Crockett ammo allowances, all of these lost rounds were likely fired within the base. Explosive Ordnance Disposal incident reports, which are used to keep clear records of dangerous materials, were never filed. There was a Fort Lewis Maintenance bulletin from 1964 stating that all pistons used for practicing the Davy Crockett system were to be returned to the Ammunition Magazine, however, no reports addressing the return of spent casing or the de-milling of unused rounds were found.

In essence, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) found conclusive evidence showing that Fort Lewis received 1,756 radioactive rounds. It also showed that these rounds were checked out for practice as well as used in live fire demonstrations, but then the paper trail ends. No clean up or disposal of the dangerous rounds can be confirmed.

Half the actual size of a Davy Crockett spotting round.

Above: Half the actual size of a Davy Crockett spotting round. 

The Davy Crockett spotting rounds

The M28 Davy Crockett was an early battlefield nuclear weapon system used in the US until the early 1970s. According to the International Coalition to Ban Depleted Uranium Weapons, its primary purpose was “to prevent the advance of oncoming enemy troops, by the power of the explosion, and the deterrent effect of irradiating an area.” The M101 was not the “main round”, but the spotting round “fired from a small 20mm rifle attached to the larger barrel.” The main round was the M388, which could carry either “conventional explosives or the W54 nuclear warhead.”

Information resulting from a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) concerning the DU containing M101 rounds shipped to Fort Lewis shows how this dangerous weapon has been mishandled, and the refusal of officials on base to be open and clear with the current remedial process causes concern that these mistakes have been covered up instead of being addressed and fixed.

A survey carried out by the NRC with the Army’s help suggests that three ranges in Fort Lewis would have accommodated the Davy Crockett. These are the Machine Gun Range #52 in the western artillery impact area (formerly known as the Davy Crockett range), the OP-8/9 demonstration area, in the North side impact area, and machine gun range #53. Also, records show that numerous live-fire-power demonstrations involving the Davy Crockett were conducted on base, and these records have isolated machine gun range #52, and the OP-8/9 demonstration area as definite ranges used to fire DU rounds.

To make matters worse, the 2008 survey of the firing ranges confirmed radon contamination present at the locations where the spotting rounds would have been fired. Radon is a radioactive result of erosion and other decaying processes of both uranium and DU. Speculation was made by JBLM officials that this contamination was a result of uranium present in the Earth’s crust; however, no work has been done to confirm this speculation. The Army is adamantly denying any links between the M101 rounds and the radon; however, it is also unwilling to describe how it is assured there is no connection. If the M101 casings are in fact still embedded in the ground, the DU would be breaking down. Further, the DU will continue releasing harmful decay progeny, such as radon, for billions of years to come.

Another concern of DU embedded in the artillery ranges is the possibility that it either has already or potentially will become aerosolized. This is one of the primary dangers of DU use in weapons overall. In the impact of a DU missile (a penetrator) on a hard target, or of a missile against the DU plating of on armored vehicle (or spent casing), particles of DU are released in aerosol form. “This dust then falls on the battlefield, covering the ground… It is lifted and transported long distances by the wind and can penetrate deep into the ground carried by surface water and rain.” This aerosolized form of DU increases the chance of uranium exposure for any individual living around the site where DU becomes aerosolized.

The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) toxic profile names renal function as a primary concern for exposure to uranium, but also lists sensitive targets as, “respiratory tract, neurological system, reproductive system, and the developing organism [fetus].” “More worrying evidence comes from in vitro studies which have shown that cultures of human osteopath (cells that make bone) can be transformed, that are, modified into precancerous cells, in the presence of uranium.”

Ft. Lewis Response

In a phone conversation, Mr. Strome, Safety Officer and FOIA Agent at JBLM, talked about some of the 2008 actions taken to minimize this risk. One of the actions taken was local scans of known impact ranges to locate the DU. A 2008 ground level survey of the firing ranges capable of hosting the Davy Crockett was conducted, however, it turned up no debris or casings. This lack of casings causes concern that the rounds are still embedded in the ground, or possibly have aerosolized and dispersed into the atmosphere already.

Location specific radon tests in these locations were also done, and though they did show spikes of radon they were unsuccessful in locating any of the DU rounds. Mr. Strome explained the only way to locate the DU rounds now, if they have not yet aerosolized, is to bring in more conclusive survey equipment. JBLM, he assured me, is monitoring the problem and has been in the process of starting this remediation since 2008.

Another FOIA, more specifically focused on the radon emissions and contamination resulting from this DU, turned up a less hopeful response. Michael J. Grenko, CIV USA, another FOIA agent at JBLM, confirmed that despite the knowledge that DU poses this radioactive threat to the surrounding communities, and despite the knowledge that location specific radon tests have spiked in the artillery impact area, these impact areas remain open for use. This means that any DU still embedded in the soil could quite potentially aerosolize at any moment. Mr. Grenko explained also that these sites are not considered part of the clean-up procedure for public works, so they cannot be closed.

Another shocking revelation by Mr. Grenko was that there has only been one radon survey test done on the base, at least since 1986, and that this was specific to a couple of housing units and some high-density buildings. Mr. Grenko explained that this test was done based on concern for the Department of Defense (DoD), and did not seem to be related to the DU contamination. Incidentally, higher than normal levels of radon were detected, and ventilation procedures had to be enacted.

Apparently, the military officials are doing nothing to ensure the health and safety of the communities surrounding these DU contaminated sites, even though officials understand the risk, and know two specific locations are currently contaminated.

The Army’s defense

Often, the military defends their right to use DU by reminding us that it only releases small amount of radiation. Certainly there is only low-level contamination risk and some argue that this is safe. What level of radiation is safe? Is the low-level of radiation on base that dangerous?

Some studies seeking to determine “safe radiation levels” have shown that low-level radiation may in fact be more damaging to cells than high-level radiation. Radiation is measured in rads. One rad is about the equivalent of the dose of radiation received from a major diagnostic medical X-ray). Abram Petkau at the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment, Manitoba, Canada has discovered what is now known as the Petkau effect. Dr. Petkau discovered that “at 26 rads per minute (a fast dose rate) it took 3,500 rads to destroy a cell membrane. However, at 0.001 rad per minute (slow dose rate), it required only 0.7 rad to destroy the cell membrane.” This effect is attributed to the free radical production of slow-dose rates. The sparse distribution of free radicals has “a better probability of reaching and reacting with the cell wall than do the densely crowded free radicals produced by fast-dose rates.” In other words, the body’s defense mechanisms are less likely to be triggered by low/slow dose rates, so more damage is done.

Taking Responsibility

The US military has a long history of environmental contamination, and lands used for military installations in Washington State are no exception. According to the EPA’s website, there are 21 Superfund sites in Washington State that are directly linked to the military’s use of heavy metals and toxic chemicals. (The listed sites do not include the Hanford Nuclear Reservation or its 9 nuclear reactor installations along the Columbia River.) Of these 21 sites, 19 are located in western Washington.

Concern for the reckless way the military contaminates the environment and its own personnel with toxic material is elevated by the complaints concerning the Army’s disregard of NRC regulations when dealing with such dangerous materials as DU. In an apparent attempt to cover up the mistakes of the past, JBLM officials have become less than helpful as the base’s potential role in the radon contamination becomes more clear. Perhaps this is due to the embarrassment of losing 1,756 rounds of radioactive weaponry. Perhaps it is due to the fact that, if the radon contamination is proven to be a result of the activities of personnel at JBLM, it becomes the Army’s responsibility to shut down artillery ranges for clean-up and decontamination. Regardless of why, the silence from the base is alarming.

It is important to ask ourselves, what does this silence mean for the thousands of community members, including the soldiers and their families living on base, and the families living in the many communities around the base? How is this affecting the health of the local ecosystem?

What else could the administration at JBLM possibly be waiting for before obtaining the necessary permits and beginning the remedial process? Shouldn’t an investigation and clean-up take an absolute priority, based on the toxic threat to all life in the area? All that officials will say currently is that remediation is a complicated process, but is that a good enough answer when our health is at stake? We should all demand more.

Nikki moved to the Olympia Area in 2003, where she worked with the Community Cafe collaborative, The Seattle Draft and Military Counciling Center, and Coffee Strong. While here, she also graduated from the Evergreen State College.

She now resides in Orange County, and is still proud to be working to protect this beautiful place she claims taught her so much about being a responsible community member and a compassionate human being.