ProPublica critical of RAAP open burning

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Sam Wall
editor@ourvalley.org

Two recent ProPublica articles have been critical of the impact that the Radford Army Ammunition Plant’s open burning practices may be having on the surrounding area, including one story detailing the EPA’s findings from drone testing conducted last fall.


According to its website, ProPublica is New York City based independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.”

Both articles “Open Burns, Ill Winds,” (published July 20) and “Dangerous Pollutants in Military’s Open Burns Greater Than Thought, Tests Indicate,” (published Aug. 2) were written by Abrahm Lustgarten, a senior environmental reporter for the agency.

The first story focuses on the Pentagon’s handling of the open burning of munitions waste, particularly at the RAAP, and how it has impacted “millions of acres” of land and the potential negative impact it is having on residents in the area.

According to the July 20 article, Congress banned American industries and localities from disposing of hazardous waste through “open burns,” concluding that such uncontrolled processes created potentially unacceptable health and environmental hazards.

The article said that lawmakers required open-burning facilities to install incinerators with smokestacks and filters to adhere to strict limits on what was released into the air; however, the Pentagon and its contractors were given temporary permits to continue the practice while trying to adhere to new regulations.

The temporary permits are what the RAAP has been using ever since to continue the open burnings. The article said that in the US, outdoor burning and detonation is still the military’s leading method for dealing with munitions and the associated hazardous waste, with “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 article s Pentagon defends its use of open burns, saying they are legal, safe and conducted at far fewer sites than they used to be. The EPA, the Pentagon says, has drawn up acceptable emissions levels, and has issued permits accordingly.

“Today the Radford plant is run by one of the world’s largest military contractors, BAE Systems. The M-789 medium-caliber round, shot from Apache helicopters, is produced there, as are the propellants for M-829s, fin-stabilized antitank shells made with a depleted uranium tip that can pierce a 21-inch-thick wall of solid steel from more than a mile away.

“At least 10 other private companies sublease parts of the base from BAE, making small arms bullets and fireworks, among other things. Each of these munitions produces scraps and residue that are highly toxic, volatile and difficult to safely dispose of,” the article states.

The article also notes that until the 70s, many industrial sites, including the arsenal, dumped its waste in the river, buried or burned it.

Lustgarten wrote that the toxic emissions from the RAAP are higher than any other source of pollution in Virginia, according to the federal government’s Toxic Release Inventory.

In 2014 and 2015, the last two years reported, its open burn releases include 8,400 pounds of lead, which presents extreme risks to children, stunting their brain development and leading to low IQs; 3,000 pounds of dinitrotoluene, which can cause brain and sensory dysfunction; and 360,000 pounds of polycyclic aromatic compounds, known to cause skin, lung, bladder and stomach cancers.

The total toxic releases from all of the plant’s operations in those years amount to more than 10 million pounds.

According to ProPublica, all of that pollution is legal under federal and state laws that promise to protect public health. The burns are supposed to be permitted only in certain types of weather, with the amount and types of toxins strictly controlled so that they are spread out over time and the concentration of any one chemical released into the atmosphere is unlikely to exceed what EPA toxicologists say people can handle without getting asthma or cancer or heart disease.

Lustgarten said that the permits are based on computer simulations of pollution, not actual tests, according to interviews and the Army’s technical documents.

“In Radford, on any given day that burns take place, the winds, weather, and even the substances being burned can be entirely different from the models. If the burn lasts longer or burns cooler; if the wind blows or an inversion traps smoke close to the ground; if the lead disperses in the air to a greater degree than expected, the accuracy of the models is thrown into question,” Lustgarten wrote.

The follow-up story focused on the results from drone testing conducted at the arsenal by the EPA last September and October, which Lustgarten wrote yielded higher emission rates for some toxins than previously estimated by the federal government.

“The report details chemicals measured by a drone flown through the smoke clouds directly above the burn site over the course of two weeks, and provides the first ever confirmation that significant levels of volatile organic chemicals, including acetone, benzene and toluene — all substances known to cause cancer — are widely prevalent,” he wrote.

“The data shows that five substances were found at levels greater than the EPA’s models had predicted, meaning that previous health-risk analyses completed by regulators for the burns at Radford did not fully take into account the potential exposure of the surrounding population.

“Arsenic, a chemical element known to cause cancer and skin lesions, was found to be emitted at rates 37 times what the previous Radford burn permit estimated. Lead — which can disrupt children’s brain development — was emitted at five times the level previously thought. Cadmium and silver were also present at levels higher than historical models had assumed.

“The tests also detected levels of methyl chloride, a chemical used in refrigeration and manufacturing that is known to cause severe neurological effects, high heart rates and high blood pressure, at more than twice the levels previously thought,” the Aug. 2 articles reads.

Lustgarten said that the Army did not respond for comment and that the EPA did not maker the researcher available for interview but sent a statement pointing out that the research was still in draft form and under active review.

ProPublica was given the draft report by a person concerned about the health implications at Radford and other military sites where such burns are conducted.

The article states that the research is the first of its kind to take direct measurements of the pollutant plume at the burn grounds in Radford, and it still does not attempt to measure exposure to those pollutants in the surrounding community, something that state regulators told ProPublica would be accomplished by placing ambient air monitors at schools and other public places near the burn site.

“People living near the plant have unusually high rates of cancer, thyroid disease and other health problems and have raised questions about a link to open burns, but so far there’s little evidence to prove or disprove this,” Lustergarten wrote.

The RAAP will host a Commander’s Community Meeting at the Christiansburg Library from 6:30-8 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 16. Topics discussed include: Topics of discussion will be plant modernization, safety milestones, future projects and environmental updates. It will be the first such meeting under Arsenal Commander, Lt. Col. James Scott, who assumed the two-year position in June.

To view the full articles by ProPublica and the preliminary report from the EPA, visit www.propublica.org.

Editor’s note: All facts and figures in this article are from the ProPublica stories previously mentioned. The RAAP did not return requests for comment by the Radford News Journal before publication.