Meet the People Who Make Land Mines
While President Clinton was refusing to sign the Canadian treaty that would ban land mines, we went in search of the people who make them. They work in plain brick warehouses in regular, middle-American towns.One of the biggest land-mine manufacturers in the country, Accudyne Operations, provides jobs to 325 people in Janesville, Wisconsin. Two of Accudyne's three facilities are located on the banks of the Rock River in downtown Janesville. A renovated building that at different times turned out belt buckles, women's undergarments, and boards for pipe organs now bears the Accudyne emblem-a red figure with tiny feet, skinny legs, a swollen upper body, and no facial features.Below the red Accudyne man on a company storage facility, a sign warns fire fighters: DANGER: Do Not Fight Explosives Fires. 1.4 Explosives Stored at This Site.Accudyne, which was founded in 1954 as a spinoff of the Hammond Organ Company, is a subsidiary of Alliant Techsystems of Hopkins, Minnesota. The parent company, a leader in the munitions field, is worth more than $1 billion. Alliant does a brisk business in land mines. It raked in $350 million in land-mine sales between 1985 and 1995. Accudyne itself brought in $150 million from land mines during those years, making the company the third-largest builder of anti-personnel mines in the country. Together, Alliant and its subsidiary Accudyne "hold a prominent role in that particular hall of shame," says Andrew Cooper, land-mine researcher for the Arms Project of Human Rights Watch.In April, Human Rights Watch issued a comprehensive report on forty-seven American manufacturers of land mines and their component parts. The group included some familiar names: among them, General Electric and Motorola. "We were shocked to learn that many of the companies that manufacture our pagers and cell phones and the chips that go in our hair dryers were also involved in the manufacture of weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction," says Cooper.According to Human Rights Watch, the three U.S. companies that have profited most handsomely from the land-mine business are Alliant, Hughes Aircraft (a subsidiary of General Motors), and Accudyne.Although seventeen companies-including Motorola, Hughes Aircraft, and Olin Ordnance-have informed Human Rights Watch that they will no longer produce components for anti-personnel land mines, Alliant recently told the organization that neither it nor Accudyne would promise to stop making them.Accudyne is remarkable in one other way. Motorola, General Electric, and most of the companies Human Rights Watch identified were simply manufacturing parts, such as computer chips, that another government contractor would then put together to make a mine. Unlike most of the others, the little Accudyne plant was assembling a substantial portion of the mines. Rod Bitz, who handles public relations for Accudyne, says the company had been making the "brains" of the land mines. Bitz says it stopped making anti-personnel mines in May of this year.But it's unclear whether Accudyne has actually gotten out of the business of anti-personnel land mines. The company makes a mine system called Volcano. Until recently, the U.S. government considered the Volcano a "mixed" system-one containing both anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Bitz says the Pentagon has redesigned the devices so they no longer contain an anti-personnel component. "Now they are all anti-tank," he says.A recent article by Dana Priest of The Washington Post suggests that the only thing that may have changed is the terminology. The Clinton Administration has now decided that mixed systems, like the Volcano, are not anti-personnel mines, Priest found.According to an Army letter to Minnesota Representative Jim Ramstad, Accudyne and Alliant have contracts to produce the Volcano through July 1999.Only Accudyne, its parent company, and Hughes Aircraft were assembling land-mine fuzes. Now that Hughes has agreed to Human Rights Watch's request to stop producing land-mine parts, Accudyne and Alliant may have the U.S. market all to themselves.Promotional literature for Accudyne is circumspect about the company's line of products. "We are market leaders in the design and fabrication of systems for assembly and test of customer products," says a company flier. Accudyne's capabilities include: "through-hole insertion; wave soldering; encapsulation; staking, swedging, crimping, and welding"; "dry-film lubrication"; and "hazardous-component assembly." Land mines appear to belong to the "hazardous-component assembly" category.A lliant says it's not worried about the possibility of a worldwide ban on land mines. "It has been a very small part of our business," says Bitz. He says the ban "isn't something we're tracking real closely."But Alliant Tech fiercely defends its product."Alliant Tech has been the most vocal opponent of an anti-personnel land-mine ban," says Cooper. The Human Rights Watch report notes that several years ago Alliant also lobbied against the mine-export moratorium sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and Lane Evans, the Democratic Representative from Illinois. The Leahy-Evans moratorium has brought about an effective ban on worldwide trade in land mines. Alliant argued that U.S. producers would lose $500 to $650 million in overseas business.In response to demonstrations and weekly vigils at its Hopkins, Minnesota, plant, Alliant distributed a statement entitled: "The Facts About U.S. Land-Mine Policy and Alliant's Role and Responsibility." The protest, the statement said, was an attempt to mislead people to believe "that the U.S. is contributing to this problem by producing and using land mines that last a long time and threaten civilians, and to stigmatize Alliant Techsystems by portraying the aerospace and defense company as a supplier of inappropriate products."Accudyne is a union shop. Its union leaders are reluctant to oppose the making of land mines. "I'm not going to take a stance on that one," says David Vaughn, the second vice president of United Auto Workers Local 95. "I can't."What about allegations of environmental problems at the plant, or complaints that workers were exposed to hazardous conditions? "You're O-for-2, honey," says Vaughn.In September 1995, Accudyne Operations announced it was planning to close two of its Janesville plants.Vaughn explains what's at stake: Accudyne employs more than 300 workers at what, in Janesville, are solid wages-$7.50 to $16 per hour, with the average wage at about $9."These are real people with real pain," he says. "They were going to close. The UAW had a lot to do with convincing them that they could make money in this Janesville facility." Vaughn says the number of employees at the company may soon increase to 500."Our work force has gone through an awful lot," says Beverly Wilson, head of the Accudyne unit of UAW Local 95. She says she has worked at Accudyne for twenty-five years. "You think about twenty-five years of getting up in the morning and coming to your job, and all of a sudden it's gone."Charles Brown is a Janesville resident who opposes Accudyne. "Where there are established defense contractors, people are going to fight for their jobs," he says. "I'm not happy about it, but it's very hard when you're raising a family to stand on principle and say, 'I'm not going to do that.'"Approaching Accudyne workers with abstract talk about world peace won't help the situation, he says. "People don't relate to that. They relate to a paycheck."Brown thinks the government should help convert the company so that it manufactures goods for civilian use. "The contractors have to be reined in," he says. "But people still have to have a job."As it turns out, the government has helped Accudyne Operations stay in the land-mine business. In November 1996, Governor Tommy Thompson announced that the state of Wisconsin would give Accudyne $1 million in tax credits and a $250,000 loan to help the company reinvest in the Janesville plant.Thompson visited the plant and was "whipping the crowd into almost frenzied applause at times by alternately praising the company's . . . work force and talking about the Green Bay Packers," reported the Beloit Daily News. Thompson promised the workers that at least 250 Accudyne jobs would remain in Janesville through the year 2003.Edmund Durkee, president of Accudyne at that time, told the crowd that he had worked with Thompson and the union to secure the state's investment, the Beloit newspaper reported. But Accudyne's commitment to the community depends on continued funneling of defense contracts to the company, Durkee said."Folks, you have this commitment from me today," pledged Republican Mark Neumann, the U.S. Representative from Janesville. "When we're looking at military equipment, Accudyne will get first shot at these contracts. We're not going to send these overseas, and-frankly, folks-we're not going to send them to any other city in the country."Neumann, known for his obsession with the federal deficit, told the gathering that the Accudyne contracts were nothing at all like the pork-barrel projects he has criticized so vehemently."The difference between pork and contracts is that pork isn't needed," he said. "With these contracts, we're talking about things that are legitimately needed."In 1996, Neumann received $2,500 in campaign contributions from Alliant Techsystems Employee Citizenship Fund.On the desk of Ed Long, the new president of Accudyne Operations, sits a canister of Atomic Fireball candies.Long places three cone-shaped objects on his desk. The objects are fuzes. "Our niche in the business is fuzing," he says. These computerized machines with "the little firecracker" inside them trigger bombs to explode. The Hydra 70, Long says, pointing to the largest, is for helicopters, jets, and attack tanks. The other two are for big guns. The 732 fuze, one of the two made for big guns, has a "miniature radar inside it." The radar is supposed to cause the bomb to go off at a particular height, though sometimes it doesn't go off until it hits the ground, he says.The company doesn't actually arm the mine with major explosives, Long is careful to say. Another plant loads the explosives, says Bitz. He says Alliant owns one such plant.In the Court Street plant (originally a city storage facility for snowplows and road salt), we put on blue smocks and safety goggles. Long says to fasten all the snaps. The smocks "short out" the static electricity in bodies and clothing, he explains.Many women and a few men are doing the detail work on the circuit boards and batteries for the Volcano mine system. "Companies that do this kind of work use lots of women," says Long. "Women are really good at tasks that require manual dexterity. They are also better at sitting for long periods of time. Men want to get up, move around, hammer on things."After the detail work, says Long, employees "pot" the mine fuze in epoxy. Then it cures for several hours in a hot room and goes to a back warehouse for environmental testing. This includes refrigeration, propulsion through an air gun, and what Long calls "shake and bake"-a machine that both vibrates and heats the mines.Long pauses at a wall of photographs depicting artillery tests on Accudyne products. They show big guns aiming at various angles into the desert. Pinned up next to these are photos of burrowing owls and horses. "Those are wild horses on the firing range at Yuma," Long says. He points to a dappled one. "Looks like this one has taken a few pieces of shrapnel," he says.Anti-personnel mines are not supposed to kill, though they often do. Engineers design the weapons to maim and cause extreme pain. A legless soldier, according to theory, causes more physical difficulty and emotional distress to his fellows than a dead one."Each month in Cambodia 400 people are killed or lose limbs or sight due to land-mine explosions," says Patty Vanderberg, a nurse living in Cambodia, where the amputee rate is one per 236 people (in the United States, that ratio is one in 22,000). "Every entry to every market in the capital is lined with amputees begging. Most of the victims are women and children who happen upon the mines in their rice fields, on their way to gather firewood, or on their way to school."The Vietnam-era mines have caused horrific damage. But new mines continue to show up daily in fields, roads, and forests. Vanderberg says the Cambodian army and rival factions are currently planting land mines on the Thai border.Anti-personnel mines are also an American problem. According to Army documents, mines caused one-third of all U.S. casualties during the Vietnam War. Nearly 90 percent of the mines that injured U.S. soldiers were either manufactured in the United States or made with American components."The U.N. estimates that 100 million mines, or more, may be deployed in sixty-two nations. That's one mine in the ground for every fifty humans on earth," says The Defense Monitor, a publication of the Center for Defense Information.When he announced that he would not support the international ban on land mines that will be signed in Ottawa in December, Bill Clinton made this factually true but disingenuous statement: "We unilaterally stopped producing, stopped selling, stopped using these land mines.""That man is beyond belief," says Cooper. "What he doesn't say is that the U.S. has fourteen million weapons in its stockpile ready to go."Clinton also failed to say that land mines were still in production only this past spring at Accudyne Operations. According to Accudyne's Bitz, this recent contract replenished U.S. land-mine stores used during the Gulf War.The U.S. habit of replenishing stocks means that it has no need to make land mines right now. But "production could start again if the stockpile were depleted or if the Defense Department decides to improve the technological requirements or to manufacture a new land mine," says Cooper.Alliant and Accudyne have taken the Presidential cue. "Alliant is no longer producing components for self-destruct, self-deactivating anti-personnel land mines," reads an Alliant P.R. sheet on land mines. This is also true of Accudyne, says Bitz.What if the United States offered Accudyne a contract to produce more mines?"We'd look at it like we'd look at any other business opportunity," says Bitz.Accudyne and Alliant also echo the President's habit of defending the production of self-destructing mines ("smart mines"), while condemning the less high-tech land mines that are commonplace in poorer countries."We've never produced long-lived land mines," says Bitz. "Those are the ones that are causing all the casualties."Bitz says the company wants to do away with the low-tech mines. "We've always advocated for a total ban on long-lived land mines and their indiscriminate use," he says.Accudyne's self-destructing anti-personnel mines "are used only in combat zones," says Bitz. "They last to a maximum of fifteen days." When it comes to deactivation, Bitz quotes an Army statistic: Mines are 99.99 percent accurate. He says a backup deactivation ("which means the battery runs out," says Lieutenant Colonel Brian McConnell of the U.S. Army) "assures that they are 100 percent reliable at disarming."Just how intelligent are these smart mines? "Nobody who understands weaponry should use the term 'smart mines,'" says Caleb Rossiter, the director of Demilitarization for Democracy. "'Smart' implies a computer that makes an intelligent discrimination between targets. Land mines aren't smart. They are triggered by anything-children, animals."Rossiter also takes issue with the argument that self-destruct land mines are short-lived. He says the timing mechanism can be redesigned to make the mines last years longer than the fifteen days Alliant says is the smart-mine lifespan."You could make them as long-lived as you want-twenty, thirty years," says Rossiter. Ed Long, president of Accudyne, agrees that a smart mine with an extended lifespan is possible. "You could design a product to last twenty years," he says.The Red Cross, which calls for a total ban on all land mines, says the self-destruct land mines might prove to be much more dangerous than the conventional variety."Because of the vast number [of mines] involved, and the complete absence of any marking, it is likely that the number of civilian casualties resulting from a large-scale strike with remotely delivered mines will greatly exceed the casualty rates seen with conventional minefields," the Red Cross said in a 1996 report. "Although the mines may lie on the surface, they will not be visible in any depth of vegetation ... Even the doubtful benefit of self-destruction and self-deactivation at a later date will not prevent widespread casualties in the initial days after the strike. There is little doubt that the development of remotely delivered mines has increased the probability of a major rise in post-conflict mine casualties."Many U.S. military personnel don't trust land mines-even "smart" ones. "We kill more Americans with our mines than we do anybody else," said former Marine Corps Commandant General Alfred Gray Jr. in a statement to the American Defense Association's Mines, Countermines, and Demolitions Symposium held in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1993. "We never kill many enemy with mines ... What the hell is the use of sowing all this if you're going to move through it next week or next month? ... We have many examples of our own young warriors trapped by their own minefields ... We had examples even in Desert Storm."Timothy Connolly, a Gulf War veteran and former Clinton Administration official, told Human Rights Watch that many officers had confided to him in private that they would never use scatterable land mines, not even those designed to self-destruct. "They were simply not prepared to risk the lives of their soldiers on the promise that the technology would work as designed," said Connolly.At 3:30 on a Friday afternoon, about thirty workers, many wearing blue smocks and carrying thermoses, exit from a long brick building at Accudyne's Court Street facility. A young woman rolls down her car window to talk while she waits for a co-worker. Her name is Vicki (she declines to give her last name), and she has worked at Accudyne for eight years. She says she solders electric timers.What does her company make? "We can't really talk about stuff like that," she says. Then she reconsiders. "When you see reports on TV of mines exploding-none of our stuff does that anymore. It's all high-tech now." Anyhow, she says, the company isn't assembling land mines at the moment. "We don't make that stuff. We just make the timers."Vicki likes her job. "I'll probably retire from here," she says.Two girls in sweatshirts and shorts get out of a car. The smaller one says her name is Jenifer. She is waiting for her mother who "works in the front" and helps put things together.Does she know what they make here? No, she says, and pulls at her necklace. "They're bomb-type things, but weirder."She says her mother doesn't tell her much about her job. Anyhow, Jenifer says she doesn't find it interesting. "I came here for Bring Your Daughter to Work Day. We saw a video, but I didn't pay attention. It had things blowing up and stuff."A few minutes later, her mother comes out of the main entrance and walks quickly toward Jenifer and her friend. The woman smiles.She turns serious when we ask if she has a minute to talk. "I'd rather not," she says. "OK?"Eileen Seeman, however, is happy to speak with us. She calls herself "an assembler, grade one." This is not the first position Seeman has held at Accudyne. "I used to make fuze bases," she says. "I don't do that anymore. Now I'm riveting parts."Seeman doesn't care for land mines. "As far as I'm concerned, they should all be eliminated," she says. "If there was something else to do, I would do it. If they made pens and pencils, I'd be happy." But Seeman appreciates the benefit package of her union job. "They've got great insurance," she says.Not So SmartSome of the "smart" mines the government currently has in its stockpile may be rather stupid. It is possible that, when our troops finally use them, they will fail to detonate up when they should-which means they would still be hazardous should anyone come near them.Whistleblowers at Accudyne were joined by the U.S. government in a 1993 lawsuit against the parent company Alliant Techsystems. The suit claimed that Accudyne had broken state and federal environmental law; knowingly produced faulty mines, then claimed they were functional; ordered workers to cover up defects and the misuse of hazardous chemicals; and harassed the whistleblowers who called attention to the situation.In 1989, the U.S. government awarded a $34 million contract to Accudyne to produce the Modular Pack Mine System (MOPMS). But in 1993, the Army canceled the contract and sued the company. "All of the control and sensor assemblies manufactured by Accudyne are unreliable and pose a potential safety hazard and are therefore unusable," the Army concluded in its complaint."Accudyne staff neither understand the complexity of the MOPMS electronics nor the difficulties associated with the radio frequency/digital testing," an Army inspection team informed superiors, according to the suit.The lawsuit claimed that Accudyne built its own equipment for testing the mines. That equipment proved to be "defective and unreliable and out of calibration," the suit alleged.The whistleblowers claimed that some of the products Accudyne was making had initial "test failure rates in excess of 70 percent," but the company allegedly retested parts until they passed, in violation of the contract.According to the suit, Army field tests eventually found that "the electronics assemblies manufactured by Accudyne experienced failure rates of almost 40 percent.""Meaning the mines were hazardous duds," wrote Andrew Cooper of Human Rights Watch in a guest editorial for Defense Week.Accudyne's testing equipment was not registering the mines' failure to self-destruct on command as a defect, the Army determined.When a production supervisor named Pamela Carr complained to Accudyne managers about faulty parts, Accudyne told her to install them in the mines anyway, the suit charged.The whistleblowers said the company retaliated against them. According to court papers, nearly all the whistleblowers suffered pay cuts, demotions, threats, and harassment.Alliant eventually paid the U.S. government $12 million to settle the suit. An additional $3 million went to pay the whistleblowers' expenses and attorneys' fees. Alliant denied any liability, saying the alleged violations occurred prior to its acquisition of Accudyne in October 1993."We're a long way from that now," says Bitz of Accudyne. The Army says it destroyed the faulty Accudyne mines.But settlement of the suit does not settle the problem. Long before the Pentagon awarded the contract to Accudyne, there was trouble with the MOPMS, which were produced for sixteen years before the Army noticed they were malfunctioning. Something, says Cooper, was wrong with the Pentagon design.Eric Slater, a senior scientist from Hughes Aircraft, the original maker of the MOPMS, said in a deposition that the system "had a lot of technical problems." Slater added, "My experience is that there are many components in the mine, at least a dozen or more, that can be defective.""The program was just plagued with technical problems," says Bitz. "Both at Accudyne and at the other company."If even the smart mines can prove defective, the Pentagon may be sitting on a powder keg."I hope that the very people who have to use these land mines and rely on them for their security and safety know about this," Cooper goes on. "The land-mine technology they are being asked to handle is quite possibly deficient. The very design that came from the government was fatally flawed. They never had a chance to develop a good product because it was tainted from the start. Are they asking U.S. soldiers and civilians who have to step into the mine field to trust these mines?"According to the Army, some of these mines are still in government stockpiles. "We do currently use them," says an Army spokesperson. "They use them, and they're stocked with them."Surely the Army is careful to test these mines, considering the problems they have had? No, says the spokesperson-that's the manufacturer's responsibility. "We wouldn't buy them and then go test them ourselves."Catherine Capellaro is Outreach Coordinator for the Progressive Media Project. Anne-Marie Cusac is Managing Editor of The Progressive. Support for this story was provided in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, Inc.