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On April 26, 2008, the BBC Alabama arrived in Longview, Wash., carrying 6,700 tons of Kuwaiti sand. The sand had become contaminated with depleted uranium when U.S. military vehicles and munitions caught fire at Doha Army base in Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War. The depleted uranium was being repatriated. The sand was a gift of the Kuwaiti government.
So was the cost of repatriation. Neither government will discuss just how much the tab was.
The Longview Daily News reported that Mike Wilcox, vice president of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union Local 21, initially had been "concerned about the safety of longshoremen and the entire community when he heard a shipment of depleted uranium was coming into Longview."
But the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that the sand contained "unimportant quantities" of radioactive material, and officials from the Department of Health would be available to test radiation levels -- just in case any of the sand spilled.
At the last minute, the Army notified port authorities that tests had revealed that the sand was also contaminated with lead -- in fact, four times more lead than the EPA's limit for hazardous materials. Transshipment was delayed for a few days awaiting a green light from the EPA.
Wilcox told the Daily News that he hoped the delivery would be a one-time thing.
Over the next month, longshoremen loaded 160 containers onto railcars bound for an Idaho-based waste disposal site owned by a company called American Ecology. When the sand arrived at the Idaho site, the company did its own tests and, as Chad Hyslop, project director for American Ecology, told the Daily News, "found no hazardous levels of lead."
Doug Rokke, who quit his job directing the cleanup of radioactive battlefields for the Army, contacted American Ecology and discovered "that they had absolutely no knowledge of U.S. Army Regulation 700-48, U.S. Army PAM 700-48, U.S. Army Technical Bulletin 9-1300-278, and all of the medical orders dealing with depleted uranium contamination, environmental remediation procedures, safety and medical care."
Hazardous materials storage has become a lucrative and growing business, especially since Donald Rumsfeld began implementing his plans for a sleek new "global cavalry" capable of swift and lethal response from strategically placed "frontier stockades" to punish bad guys whenever and wherever they have been bad. According to the Pentagon's annual "Base Structure Report," which itemizes its foreign and domestic military real estate, the Department of Defense currently operates more than 800 such bases around the world; 5,311 if you count the ones in American territories and on the U.S. mainland; probably well over 6,000 if you count the ones, like Doha in Kuwait, that for some reason didn't make the list. (Similarly omitted are all U.S. bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar and Uzbekistan.)
Rumsfeld, coyly switching metaphors, referred to them as "lily pads," which is about as convincing a euphemism as "American Ecology." Lily pads may sound greener and friendlier than, say, "footprint," which makes one at least think of boot heels, but it is safe to assume -- because there has never been an exception -- that every one of those bases is an environmental disaster area. The U.S. military is the most profligate polluter on the planet.
The Thule base in Greenland, for example, was sort of a pioneer lily pad. In the '40s, it was a convenient hop, skip and a bomber run to Berlin, and later it was part of the Cold War surveillance network. In 1953, the U.S. Navy sailed into Thule Harbor and informed the local Inughuit community that they had 48 hours to leave. Sorry for the inconvenience, folks, but there are houses 100 miles north of here with your names on them. We promise.
Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam veteran who took his own life after coming home. Her latest book, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War, was released on Memorial Day, 2006. Her Web site is Flashback.