Discounted casualties

The penetrators in the DU shells that the US military first used in combat in the Gulf War were produced by two munitions factories in Massachusetts and Tennessee. These radioactive weapons used by the US overwhelmed the Iraqi tanks. However, through radiation exposure and chemical toxicity, these same weapons also seriously impaired the health of US soldiers. The effects of radioactive pollution on the environment and on human bodies have cast a dark shadow on the residential communities near these production sites.
(Story and photo by Akira Tashiro, senior staff writer)
April 24th, 2000
1. Careless dumping

Polluting factory near residential area
Disposal in the ground for 40+ years

I found Starmet Corporation, manufacturer of DU penetrators, about 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) northwest of Boston, Massachusetts, in the southwest tip of Concord, the historic town that launched the American Revolution. Concord's population is about 18,000, and Starmet is one of several factories located in a quiet, wooded, otherwise residential area.

"The state government has designated this factory one of the state's most toxic waste disposal sites." Jack Scotnicki (57), a volunteer teacher who was my guide that day, talked as he turned his car into the road leading to the factory. "

For decades, DU sludge and polluted water were dumped into the holding basin and marshland behind the factory, and DU particles emitted by the smokestacks."

The drinking water in the suburbs

A major road runs in front of the factory, which stands on a small hill. Beyond the road flows the Assabet River. Parking the car on a side road next to the river, Scotnicki said, "This river provides the drinking water for Billerica, Massachusett, a town that lies downstream. If this were contaminated, we would be in serious trouble." His expression was grim as he looked at the river.

Starmet Corporation was founded in 1958 as Nuclear Metals Inc. (NMI). The original leaders of Nuclear Metals, Inc. were professors at nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They researched methods of using depleted uranium (U-238), a radioactive waste product generated in the nuclear weapon production process. Former President John F. Kennedy, then a US senator, helped celebrate the founding of this company by attending its opening ceremony.

"At first, the company was also researching uranium 235, a fissile material. We know this because uranium 235 has been detected in the waste," said Scotnicki.

No shield for the holding basin

Full-scale production of DU penetrators to fulfill a military contract began in the 1970s. At its peak in the 80s, the company had more than 600 employees. NMI's focus was on raising production. The liquid radioactive waste it generated in the process was summarily dumped on site into a natural kettle hold in the ground. Referred to as a "holding basin," the radioactive sludge pit lacks even a concrete lining. By 1985, more than 181 tons of DU, 317 tons of copper, and upwards of 360 kilograms of uranium 235 had been dumped into that hole.

Investigation by local residents

"Can you believe it?" Scotnicki raised his shoulders in an exaggerated gesture. "These facts began to come out when local residents started a environmental study of NMI in 1989."

Seeking to alter its image, NMI changed its name in 1997. By September 1998, under the guidance of the state Department of Environmental Protection and with $6.5 million provided by its contract partner, the US Army, the newly named Starmet Corporation had spent $8.2 million to remove roughly 6,100 cubic meters of sludge from the basin and transport it to a low-level radioactive waste storage facility in Utah.

"It was too late," said Scotnicki. The polluted water that seeped from the highly toxic radioactive sludge had already polluted the surrounding soil and underground water.

Concord map

Jack Scotnicki stands next to the Assabet River, which he fears may be contaminated with DU. (Concord, Massachusetts)

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