Hot Sand 

6,700 tons of radioactive Kuwaiti sand at home in Idaho

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 the tab.

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 Environmental Protection Agency's limit for hazardous materials. The shipment was delayed, awaiting a green light from the EPA.

Wilcox told the Daily News 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 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 "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 business, especially since Donald Rumsfeld implemented 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 operates more than 800 such bases around the world; 5,311 if you count those in American territories and on the U.S. mainland; probably well over 6,000 if you count the ones, like Doha, that for some reason didn't make the list. (Also omitted are 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 "footprint," but every one of those bases is an environmental disaster area. The Thule Air Base in Greenland, for example, was sort of a pioneer lily pad. In the 1940s, it was a convenient hop, skip and 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.

"Everyone packed what they could on their dogsleds and set off north across the ice," remembers Aron Qaavigaq, who was 12 at the time. "After a while, my father stopped and looked back. He and my mother were crying ... We were young and very excited to be going somewhere new. But they kept crying, so we knew there was something wrong."

There were no houses. Qaavigaq and his family spent the winter in tents 695 miles north of the Arctic Circle. After 55 years, Qaavigaq and the rest of the Inughuit still want to go home. But first they want the United States to clean up the mess they have made: thousands of barrels of toxic chemistry, rubbish heaps, electrical equipment contaminated with PCBs, and one whole hydrogen bomb, which was never recovered when a B-52 crashed upon landing in 1968.

In a deal struck with the Danish government in 2003, the Bush administration agreed to return the original Inughuit community land in return for continued use of the base. But the administration insists it is not responsible for any cleanup.

"They said if they were to clean up after themselves at Thule, then they would be met by similar demands in the Philippines, Japan and elsewhere in the world," Svend Auken, Denmark's former minister of the environment, told the Christian Science Monitor in August. "They didn't want to set that precedent." CSM also quotes Cheryl Irwin, a spokeswoman for the secretary of defense, opining that cleanup costs "reflected a shared burden with our host nation for our contribution for defense of the free world." The United States has, however, agreed to forgo "any claims for residual value of improvements made while there."

There is a growing resistance to the omnipresence of U.S. military installations around the world. The coalition, though practically invisible in the United States, is evident elsewhere. NOBASES seeks "an end to military domination and intimidation and an end to the social, environmental and economic consequences of these bases in the host countries." The coalition has recently organized massive demonstrations in Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. Though few have ultimately been successful, they've made acquiescing to American military expansion an increasingly expensive political choice for foreign leaders.

Here in Idaho, however, polluting the land is cheap. Idaho's Republican officials, Sens. Mike Crapo and Larry Craig, Reps. Mike Simpson and Bill Sali, and Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter and Lt. Gov. Jim Risch have all benefited from American Ecology's generosity. In the first quarter of 2008, American Ecology reported a record disposal volume and a $13.4-million profit, a 17 percent increase over the same quarter last year. Asked if the sand is dangerous, Hyslop said, "It's not something you want laying around in Kuwait."

If NOBASES is ultimately successful in closing U.S. bases across the globe, American Ecology will have its choice of military leavings for the foreseeable future.

Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam veteran who took his own life after coming home. Her latest book is Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War. Her Web site is flashbackhome.com

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