By AMANDA LEHMERT and KEVIN DENNEHY
CAMP EDWARDS – Army contractors found what they believe to be a 20-millimeter depleted uranium round last week.
The round, found at a groundwater cleanup area called Demolition Area 1, was due to be shipped yesterday to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland for further analysis.
Considered by the Pentagon an effective and valuable munitions because they can pierce the armor of an enemy tank, depleted uranium is toxic and radioactive.
Some scientists insist exposure to depleted uranium during the first Gulf War was a cause of Gulf War syndrome illnesses. Department of Defense officials debunk the claim.
While Army officials have long insisted depleted uranium was never fired on Camp Edwards, some Upper Cape base activists insist the military didn’t always monitor the activities of defense contractors who improved and developed weapons.
Military and environmental officials yesterday were perplexed by the discovery.
“It was an unexpected discovery for us and it’s important that the military thoroughly investigate to determine whether there are other depleted uranium items on the base or out in Demo 1,” said Jim Murphy, Environmental Protection Agency spokesman.
“It’s important to inform us and the public about how it got there, when it was used, and for what purpose.”
The EPA is waiting for more information from the Army, Murphy said.
Army officials said the round is not a danger to public health and is not explosive.
The 2.5-inch round, discovered during excavation as part of the ongoing Camp Edwards cleanup, was found about a foot deep in the soil of a possible burn pit.
Officials with the Impact Area Groundwater Study Program, which is coordinating the base cleanup, say the round could have been burned.
The round had a cap called a wind shelf on the tip and a partially broken nylon rotating ring on the back, leading the investigators to believe it had not been fired.
Investigators concluded it was a depleted uranium round after testing it with a machine that measures radioactivity, said groundwater program manager Kent “Hap” Gonser.
“They found it was giving off very low levels of radioactivity.”
Demolition Area I, where the bullet was discovered, is a source of groundwater contamination on the base, and crews are currently removing and cleaning the soil.
There isn’t a significant heath risk to the workers who handled the round, Gonser said.
The threat of DU
Depleted uranium, or DU, is what remains when uranium 235 is extracted from ore to make nuclear bombs and fuel for nuclear reactors.
Twice as dense as lead, it can slice through the thick steel of a tank like a heat-seeking dart.
Textron Systems Corp. of Wilmington, and its predecessor, AVCO, was one of the defense contractors that developed depleted uranium weapons.
Textron was also one of many contractors testing tactical weapons on the ranges of Camp Edwards near the Sandwich village of Forestdale.
From 1982 to 1984, Textron loaded 11 depleted uranium warheads onto missiles at Camp Edwards before shipping them to a test-firing facility in New Mexico, according to records the company provided to the National Guard a few years ago.
Weapons using depleted uranium were first used in combat during the first Gulf War, and continue to be used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Guard contacts the Navy
Gonser said it was difficult to tell where the round came from. It was corroded and had no markings.
Rounds of that type are typically used by the Navy, for anti-tank or anti-missile machine guns, Gonser said, Groundwater program officials have asked the Navy who would have permission to use the round in an effort to find out why it was unearthed on the Upper Cape base.
While Gonser said Textron shipped 11 rounds of depleted uranium through the base, those rounds were larger than the 20-millimeter round and there is no record of them being used on the base.
“The Guard says they don’t know where it came from. How can that be?” said Richard Hugus of Falmouth, a member of the citizen panel that monitors the Camp Edwards cleanup.
James Kinney of Sandwich, another member of the panel, is likewise skeptical. He says the markings on, and holes in, thick steel targets on the firing ranges at Camp Edwards made some suspicious that depleted uranium weapons had been fired there.
Tests of the targets and soil yielded no evidence that levels of radiation were any higher than background radiation.
But if the Army determines that the new round does contain depleted uranium, Kinney said, it will only stoke those concerns.
“I don’t think anyone just happened to have one depleted uranium round out there that fell out of their pocket,” Kinney said yesterday. “If there was one, I’m sure there were more.”
Part of the uncertainty, he said, is that the Guard never learned the extent of contractor work done on the base.
“It’s definitely a concern and a cause for a full investigation.”