By Marty Gordon
The Radford Army Ammunition Plant (RAAP) remains one of the top polluters in the state of Virginia, but government officials say they are working hard to change that. The arsenal’s pollutant numbers have decreased, but they remain high according to the latest Federal Released Toxic Report.
The numbers show the New River Valley plant released 9.223 million pounds of toxic substances in 2017, the latest reporting period. In comparison, Westrock Industries in Covington was listed as the second best plant in terms of pollutants, releasing 2.6 million pounds of toxic substances.
Lt. Col. Anthony Kazor, the plant’s commander, told onlookers at a quarterly public information meeting at the Christiansburg Library he has challenged the plant’s staff to make the necessary changes.
“Nobody likes that title,” said Kazor, referring to the arsenal’s high level of pollution. “We are working between the permits and with BAE (the government contractor at the plant) to eliminate and cut down that waste stream.”
The plant, which consists of over 4,000 acres and was built on the eve of World War II, lies on the border of Montgomery and Pulaski counties. Over the years, the plant has employed a high of 4,000 and currently employs nearly 2,500 workers.. The facility is owned by the U.S. Army and currently is operated by BAE Systems.
The facility’s environmental record has come under increasing scrutiny. At the heart of public concern has been the contaminants being put into the air thanks to an “open air burning ground (OBG) to the rear of the facility.
The propellant production results in waste containing various hazardous chemicals, such as barium, chromium, and mercury. The practice has been to simply burn the waste at the OBG.
Residents and members of the Sierra Club have expressed concerns that particles of lead and other elements were being carried downwind to many of the communities in and around the plant near Fairlawn and Radford. No new concerns were brought up Thursday at the public information meeting.
Researchers who flew a drone over the open burning in 2017 found arsenic, lead and other pollutants at higher-than-expected levels, according to a draft report obtained by The Associated Press. The drone was flown into plumes while carrying a gas- and particle-sensing system designed by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the report.
Both BAE Systems and the government have taken steps to change the old practice of open burning. Jody Hawks, the plants’ environmental manager, told the crowd at the hearing that the ongoing environmental plan included immediately reducing lead associated with the OBG.
“We have done that,” Hawks said. “The treatment of MK90 (ammunition) grains via the OBG stopped on May 1, 2018, significantly reducing the amount of lead treated at the OBG.”.
Alex A. Beeler, the assistant secretary of the Army, issued a memorandum last month that requires all government facilities to terminate the use of OBG disposal of solid waste that could be contaminated with explosives residues. He also ordered every facility to evaluate new technologies for use in the treatment of such waste.
The next step calls for an Energetic Waste Incinerator, which will keep the elimination waste in an enclosed facility. This will include Rotary kiln incinerators, contained burn and decontamination chambers, grinder building and a control and maintenance building.
Design work is currently under way with possible construction as early as 2021. Testing on the new facility is scheduled for 2024 with possible normal operation by late 2024. When completed, the incinerator will handle 95 percent of the remaining waste.
Hawks said the facility made a big difference when a 1940s coal-fired plant was eliminated, replaced by a new natural gas energy center. The older coal-fired plant had been listed as the source of several air quality violations over a period of 10 years.
“We have eliminated SO2 emissions, and VOC emissions have seen a significant decrease from 2016 with the installation of new stills. We will continue to look for opportunities for VOC reductions in all our processes,” Hawks said.
The next community meeting is slated for March 26, 2020. Over the past three years, 15 of these meetings have been held.