by Abrahm Lustgarten
The Pentagon’s handling of munitions and their waste has poisoned millions of acres, and left Americans to guess at the threat to their health.
Shortly after dawn most weekdays, a warning siren rips across the flat, swift water of the New River running alongside the Radford Army Ammunition Plant. Red lights warning away boaters and fishermen flash from the plant, the nation’s largest supplier of propellant for artillery and the source of explosives for almost every American bullet fired overseas.
Along the southern Virginia riverbank, piles of discarded contents from bullets, chemical makings from bombs, and raw explosives — all used or left over from the manufacture and testing of weapons ingredients at Radford — are doused with fuel and lit on fire, igniting infernos that can be seen more than a half a mile away. The burning waste is rich in lead, mercury, chromium and compounds like nitroglycerin and perchlorate, all known health hazards. The residue from the burning piles rises in a spindle of hazardous smoke, twists into the wind and, depending on the weather, sweeps toward the tens of thousands of residents in the surrounding towns.
Nearby, Belview Elementary School has been ranked by researchers as facing some of the most dangerous air-quality hazards in the country. The rate of thyroid diseases in three of the surrounding counties is among the highest in the state, provoking town residents to worry that emissions from the Radford plant could be to blame. Government authorities have never studied whether Radford’s air pollution could be making people sick, but some of their hypothetical models estimate that the local population faces health risks exponentially greater than people in the rest of the region.
More than three decades ago, Congress banned American industries and localities from disposing of hazardous waste in these sorts of “open burns,” concluding that such uncontrolled processes created potentially unacceptable health and environmental hazards. Companies that had openly burned waste for generations were required to install incinerators with smokestacks and filters and to adhere to strict limits on what was released into the air. Lawmakers granted the Pentagon and its contractors a temporary reprieve from those rules to give engineers time to address the unique aspects of destroying explosive military waste.
That exemption has remained in place ever since, even as other Western countries have figured out how to destroy aging armaments without toxic emissions. While American officials are mired in a bitter debate about how much pollution from open burns is safe, those countries have pioneered new approaches. Germany, for example, destroyed hundreds of millions of pounds of aging weapons from the Cold War without relying on open burns to do it.
In the United States, outdoor burning and detonation is still the military’s leading method for dealing with munitions and the associated hazardous waste. It has remained so despite a U.S. Senate resolution a quarter of a century ago that ordered the Department of Defense to halt the practice “as soon as possible.” It has continued in the face of a growing consensus among Pentagon officials and scientists that similar burn pits at U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan sickened soldiers.
Federal records identify nearly 200 sites that have been or are still being used to open-burn hazardous explosives across the country. Some blow up aging stockpile bombs in open fields. Others burn bullets, weapons parts and — in the case of Radford — raw explosives in bonfire-like piles. The facilities operate under special government permits that are supposed to keep the process safe, limiting the release of toxins to levels well below what the government thinks can make people sick. Yet officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, which governs the process under federal law, acknowledge that the permits provide scant protection.
Consider Radford’s permit, which expired nearly two years ago. Even before then, government records show, the plant repeatedly violated the terms of its open burn allowance and its other environmental permits. In a typical year, the plant can spew many thousands of pounds of heavy metals and carcinogens — legally — into the atmosphere. But Radford has, at times, sent even more pollution into the air than it is allowed. It has failed to report some of its pollution to federal agencies, as required. And it has misled the public about the chemicals it burns. Yet every day the plant is allowed to ignite as much as 8,000 pounds of hazardous debris.
“It smells like plastic burning, but it’s so much more intense,” said Darlene Nester, describing the acrid odor from the burns when it reaches her at home, about a mile and a half away. Her granddaughter is in second grade at Belview. “You think about all the kids.”
Internal EPA records obtained by ProPublica show that the Radford plant is one of at least 51 active sites across the country where the Department of Defense or its contractors are today burning or detonating munitions or raw explosives in the open air, often in close proximity to schools, homes and water supplies. The documents — EPA PowerPoint presentations made to senior agency staff — describe something of a runaway national program, based on “a dirty technology” with “virtually no emissions controls.” According to officials at the agency, the military’s open burn program not only results in extensive contamination, but “staggering” cleanup costs that can reach more than half a billion dollars at a single site.