More than 30 years ago, Congress banned US industries from disposing of hazardous waste in "open burns" because uncontrolled incineration created unacceptable health and environmental risks. Companies that had openly burned waste for generations were required to install incinerators, filters, and smokestacks to meet strict limits on emissions. The Pentagon and its contractors received a temporary reprieve to continue burning military waste. That exemption has remained in place ever since.
There are a total of 197 active and former sites of open burns and detonations, including military munitions and their waste, listed in the US Environmental Protection Agency's database. 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.
This story is the first in a series examining the Pentagon's oversight of thousands of toxic sites on American soil, and years of stewardship marked by defiance and delay.
RADFORD, VIRGINIA (July 20, 2017) -- 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 US 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 US 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.
The sites of open burns -- including those operated by private contractors and the Department of Energy -- have led to 54 separate federal Superfund declarations and have exposed the people who live near them to dangers that will persist for generations.
In Grand Island, Nebraska, groundwater plumes of explosive residues spread more than 20 miles away from the Cornhusker Army Ammunition Plant into underground drinking water supplies, forcing the city to extend replacement water to rural residents.
And at the Redstone Arsenal, an Army experimental weapons test and burn site in Huntsville, Alabama, perchlorate in the soil is 7,000 times safe limits, and local officials have had to begin monitoring drinking water for fear of contamination.
Federal environmental regulators have warned for decades that the burns pose a threat to soldiers, contractors and the public stationed at, or living near, American bases. Local communities -- from Merrimac, Wisconsin, to Romulus, New York -- have protested them.
Researchers are studying possible cancer clusters on Cape Cod that could be linked to munitions testing and open burns there, and where the groundwater aquifer that serves as the only natural source of drinking water for the half-million people who summer there has been contaminated with the military's bomb-making ingredients.
The 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.
"State and federal regulators and DoD scrutinize these operations to ensure the installation is operating in compliance with permits in a safe and environmentally responsible manner," wrote J.C. King, director of munitions in the office of the assistant secretary of the army for installations, energy and the environment, in a statement sent to ProPublica.
But the EPA's system for determining how much chemical burning is safe amounts to little more than educated guesses, ProPublica's investigation shows. The limits are established using layers of modeling that can be highly speculative and that often bear little resemblance to the day-to-day reality of a place like Radford.
"They say look, these emissions factors show this stuff is pretty much harmless," said Charles Hendrickson, a senior EPA remediation project manager who deals with burn sites. "But if you have a tiny percentage of something that is bad to breathe, or bad to get as fallout on your plants and soil and kids and house, even a tiny percentage of millions of pounds adds up."
Such efforts, in any case, can be hopelessly compromised if the underlying data being fed into the models doesn't match what's actually being burned and how.
ProPublica reviewed records for the 51 active burn sites and more than 145 others the Pentagon, its contractors, and other private companies operated in the past, and found they had violated their hazardous waste handling permits thousands of times over the past 37 years, often for improperly storing and disposing of toxic material, and sometimes for exceeding pollution thresholds.
At the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant in Oklahoma, the Army has failed to establish groundwater monitoring wells required by the EPA in order to watch for contamination from its burn site.
Operators at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama were cited in 2012 for burning despite cloudy weather conditions, conduct explicitly prohibited in their permit because it could make the pollution more dangerous.
Every Active Burn Site We Know About
Of course, the Pentagon could determine with greater accuracy any possible health threat. It could, for instance, actually sample and test the emissions generated by the burns. Aside from a few research sites, neither the EPA nor the Pentagon was able to point to an example where this was done. Until last year, it was never done in Radford.
ProPublica reviewed the open burns and detonations program as part of an unprecedented examination of America's handling of munitions at sites in the United States, from their manufacture and testing to their disposal.
We collected tens of thousands of pages of documents, and interviewed more than 100 state and local officials, lawmakers, military historians, scientists, toxicologists and Pentagon staff. Much of the information gathered has never before been released to the public, leaving the full extent of military-related pollution a secret.
"They are not subject to the kind of scrutiny and transparency and disclosure to the public as private sites are," said Mathy Stanislaus, who until January worked on Department of Defense site cleanup issues as the assistant administrator for land and emergency management at the EPA.
Our examination found that open burn sites are just one facet of a vast problem. From World War I until today, military technologies and armaments have been developed, tested, stored, decommissioned and disposed of on vast tracts of American soil.
The array of scars and menaces produced across those decades is breathtaking: By the military's own count, there are 39,400 known or suspected toxic sites on 5,500 current or former Pentagon properties. EPA staff estimate the sites cover 40 million acres -- an area larger than the state of Florida -- and the costs for cleaning them up will run to hundreds of billions of dollars.
The Department of Defense's cleanups of the properties have sometimes been delegated to inept or corrupt private contractors, or delayed as the agency sought to blame the pollution at its bases on someone else.
Even where the contamination and the responsibility for it are undisputed, the Pentagon has stubbornly fought the EPA over how much danger it presents to the public and what to do about it, letters and agency records show.
The Department of Defense says that it is attending to its environmental problems and that it has made great progress, having cleaned up more than 80 percent of its troubled sites and closed dozens of open burn grounds.
"It's amazing where we've come from," said Karen Baker, chief of the environmental division of the US Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the Army's cleanups and provides additional environmental cleanup services to the Pentagon for other branches. "The challenge is still there, and still daunting."
But for Gregory Nelson, who grew up in a rural area along the Radford plant's fence line and later earned his doctorate in science and technology studies at Virginia Tech, the progress hasn't come fast enough.
"Radford is the center for the Defense network. It's crucial to the war effort," Nelson said. "But it's ruined any hope that my parents' property is safe, that my water is safe. It's ruined the long-term economic development of Montgomery County. The shadow side is that this is the price of war that we as U.S citizens have to pay."
Read the rest of the report online at: https://www.propublica.org/article/military-pollution-open-burns-radford-virginia Hazardous Military Waste is Making Americans Sick PBS News Hour & World Beyond War
HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: A new investigative series from "ProPublica" called "Bombs in Our Backward" looks at the disposal of military waste and how it's affecting communities around the United States. yesterday, I spoke with the author of the series, Abrahm Lustgarten, from the NewsHour studios in Washington, D.C.
Give us an overview how significant is he problem of military waste disposal in the United States.
ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN, PROPUBLICA: Well, I mean, starting at, you know, World War I, you know, every bomb, every bullet, every weapon that we have developed for defense purposes has been developed, designed and manufactured through industrial processes and then tested and eventually in many cases disposed off as they get old and expire on American soil.
SREENIVASAN: Aren't there already environmental regulations from the EPA or other places that would protect water or air quality? I mean, does the military have an exemption from those?
LUSTGARTEN: Yes. I mean, there are stringent Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Some of which apply to the Pentagon and some which don't. In the case of open burns, the Pentagon is essentially burning what's defined as hazardous waste and the EPA regulated the burning the hazardous waste back in the 1980s. So, 30 or so years ago. Explosives were admittedly difficult to deal with.
So, at the time, they created a little bit of a loophole. It said that the Pentagon and other specialized companies that deal only in explosive can continue to burn that stuff if that's the only way they can get rid of it, but only until the improved technology figure out a better way to deal with it, at which point they would be required by the regulations to move to those alternatives.
Those now exist. They have for a long time, but the Department of Defense still leans very heavily on burning as their stand by process.
SREENIVASAN: Yes. How widespread is this around the country? I mean, you've got a map on one of your stories. How many different sites are there that are doing this that could be of concern to the neighborhood that they're in?
LUSTGARTEN: So, we obtained the list that had been compiled internally within the EPA and it listed just about 200 sites, 197 sites across the country where burns had been documented, not all those are still operating now.
There are about 60 sites that are still operating now, about 51 of which are operated directly by the Department of Defense or its contractors, as opposed to NASA and a couple of other private companies.
Those sites still today burn anywhere from a couple of hundred thousand pounds of explosives a year, up to 15 million pounds of explosive a year.
SREENIVASAN: So, one of the places that you profiled actually had an elementary school not too far away and there were people that were in adjacent farms. What are the kind of health consequences that they're having?
LUSTGARTEN: It's really difficult to know what the direct consequences are of the burning. What we know is that in the place that I looked at, Radford, Virginia, Colfax, Louisiana, is another town and in other places, there are people who appear to have unusually high rates of illnesses. They're concerned about what's causing those illnesses. They suspect that it could be tied to the pollution.
And on the other hand, it's well-documented and disclosed that there is substantial pollution, that the pollution poses a substantial health threat. But part of what we focus on the story this week is the lack of an effort to try to bridge that question and that answer. There's really been remarkably little attention paid to trying to determine whether people are actually getting sick from these operations.
SREENIVASAN: All right. Abrahm Lustgarten from "ProPublica", joining us from San Francisco today — thank you so much for your time.
LUSTGARTEN: Thank you.
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