Sophia's Peace Work

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Congrats to PT DUST!

A friend alerted me to recent developments back home. PT DUST, the Port Townsend Depleted Uranium Study Group made up of local folks from my town, have had a achieved a important step in the fight to ban depleted uranium munitions, which the U.S. Military has been using in Iraq and Afganistan. Port Townsend, Washington sits directly across from a major naval munitions base on the Olympic Peninsula. About a year ago, we asked the base commander if there was any radioactive material on the base to which he replied no. When we asked if there was depleted uranium munitions on the base (this is a type of munitions tipped with a radioactive isotope of Uranium that is super-hard and pyrophoric ... i.e. this stuff likes to burn), he said, "Oh, yes."

You see the U.S. military doesn't like to bring attention to the fact that D.U. is radioactive (it's not intensely radioactive ... you wont be hurt but it if you are in the same room with it, but if you use it ... burn or turn it into D.U. dust and fragments, it's toxicity goes way up). The military uses it because it is so hard that it goes through metal tanks like a hot knife through butter.

PT DUST has scored a victory simply in calling a spade a spade. Now that we can admit, yes, D.U. IS radioactive ... we can start saying, "Hmmm, maybe it would be better not to spread this stuff all over the place?"

Here's the article from the local paper:

Feds nudged on radioactive transport

By Janet Huck
Staff Writer, Port Townsend Leader
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Jefferson County activists played a key role in an ongoing national effort to change how depleted uranium (DU) and other potentially radioactive military munitions are identified during transport.

Presently, radioactive munitions such as DU projectiles under transport – including trucks bound for Naval Magazine Indian Island – are required to be labeled only as "explosive." But there is a big difference between an explosive cargo and one that

is potentially radioactive for those firefighters and other emergency first responders who come to an accident. DU munitions are flammable and could emit radioactivity if their vehicle catches fire.

After 18 months of intense lobbying, environmentalist and peace activists around the nation, including the Port Townsend Depleted Uranium Study Team, persuaded the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Hazardous Material to recommend a change. The agency is recommending the Department of Defense be required to label trucks carrying radioactive depleted uranium ammunition as "radioactive."

It's not a done deal yet, but emergency responders and activists are encouraged.

"The victory is a subtle shade of gray," said PT DUST member Doug Milholland. "But it's heartening to know we live in a democracy where some levers of power are connected to real people."

No accidents

Naval Magazine Indian Island is the nation's top ordnance shipping point on the West Coast. Jefferson County Emergency Program Manager Bob Hamlin stressed there hasn't been an ordnance transport vehicle accident since the facility's mission was developed 25 years ago. Indian Island itself maintains one of the top safety records – for both personnel and product handled – in the entire military.

"We haven't had a single problem with the transports," said Hamlin.

Milholland countered. "It happened in Saudi Arabia. It could happen here, next to a school or a shopping center."

Milholland said what sounds like national politics is really a Jefferson County issue. He estimated that dozens if not hundreds of trucks traveling between Naval Magazine Indian Island and Kitsap County each year carry radioactive munitions across the Hood Canal Bridge, along State Route 19, and through Chimacum and Port Hadlock.

Nationwide, activists argued persuasively that the new labeling is necessary to warn emergency services first responders of possible radioactive emissions in case of an accident.

PT DUST has been an important part of the national lobbying campaign. Some 200 environmental activists around the country wrote letters. Twenty of the 200 letters came from Jefferson County, including the appointed Port Townsend mayor, Catharine Robinson, and former mayor, Kees Kolff.

"PT DUST was really helpful," said Glen Milne, director of Ground Zero Center for NonViolent Action in Poulsbo. "The members convinced the mayor of Port Townsend and the former mayor of Port Townsend to write letters."

"Truckloads of munitions, on their way to Indian Island, routinely cross the same bridge I take almost daily," wrote Marrowstone resident Steve Hamm. "Consequently, if a truck traveling through our community were involved in an accident, our initial responding police and firefighters might have no idea the shipment contained radioactive material. Some of these folks are my friends and neighbors."

The argument hit a nerve in Washington, D.C. In an internal memo at the DOT, the analyst said depleted uranium emits ionizing radiation that results "in potential internal ingestion and inhalation radiation exposures to first responders in accident conditions."

East Jefferson Fire Rescue Chief Mike Mingee thought that the more information available, the better. "The placard would give us information to act properly in an emergency," the chief said of having information on radioactive cargo. "Though there have been no noteworthy incidences, we are in the 'what if' business. If something happened, it would be a problem. The first people to die in Chernobyl were firefighters."

DOD requirement

According to a 1986 agreement between the DOT and the Department of Defense (DOD) that has been renewed every two years, the trucks carrying munitions now being used in Iraq and Afghanistan are identified only as "explosive." The current exemption expires at the end of June 2005 and has yet to be renewed. According to an Office of Hazardous Material memorandum, a DOD agency wanted to renew the exemption to preclude disruption of munitions' transportation worldwide.

"The Office of Hazardous Materials has announced its intention to phase out the exemptions over the next two years and help the DOD work out the details," said Milne from Poulsbo's Ground Zero. "It sounds clear to me that they don't want to renew it."

US Navy Cmdr. Karen Sellers of Navy Region Northwest said, "If the rules change, we will comply with the changed rules."

Geiger counters

PT DUST also helped Jefferson County Emergency Program Manager Bob Hamlin obtain funding for training and equipment in case of a disaster, said Milholland. The funding started coming in about two years ago. Hamlin said the county and the region have begun training local trainers in handling weapons of mass destruction. The local trainers will in turn train 100 designated first responders in Kitsap, Jefferson and Clallam counties. Emergency preparedness has set up a decontamination unit at Jefferson Healthcare hospital in Port Townsend.

"We have drilled first responders and healthcare workers so they know how to use it," said Hamlin.

His office has also stocked Geiger counters for one year.

"You can't smell, taste or see radioactivity," said Hamlin. "You can only tell by turning on a Geiger counter and listen for the tick, tick, tick."


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