RADFORD, Virginia — 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.
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.
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 U.S. 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.”
The Arsenal — as the Radford Army plant has long been called — sits on 4,100 acres that have been marked by warfare of one sort or another for thousands of years. The earliest tribes left pottery and broken skulls. The Shawnee massacred English settlers. A hundred years later, Confederate forces bloodied the rolling valleys surrounding a dramatic oxbow on the New River. Then in 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the construction of today’s plant, tucked into that same turn in the river. The Arsenal raced to produce nitroglycerin and TNT, and by 1945 had made nearly 600 million pounds of them, powering almost one of every two U.S. weapons.
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.
Until the 1970s, Radford, like most industrial sites, dumped its waste in the river, buried it or burned it. Then Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (and later amendments strengthening it), aggressively regulating the worst of these wastes and giving the EPA control over virtually every stage of how dangerous materials are handled. The EPA set strict limits on how much pollution could be released into the environment — requiring special treatment for toxic wastewater and other technologies to capture and contain hazardous pollutants. But some substances — mainly explosives — defied an easy solution, and so a catch-all category was created for the leftovers, called “Subpart X.”
Subpart X permits became a virtual escape hatch from the rest of the law, creating the nation’s open burn allowances and allowing the Department of Defense and its contractors to revert to their 1970s-era practices. For many years, the sites continued to burn on an “interim status,” awaiting formal permits from the EPA. Radford started using open burns in the 1940s but didn’t get its first burn permit until 2005. It now is allowed to burn nearly three million pounds of refuse each year, including explosives powder, metals caked with propellants, and even loose cardboard or clothing or cloth soiled with volatile chemicals.
Today the toxic emissions from the Radford Arsenal dwarf 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.
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.
“We are not going to issue a permit if it is not protective of human health and the environment,” said Kyle Newman, the risk assessor for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
But the permits are based on computer simulations of pollution, not actual tests, according to interviews and the Army’s technical documents. And regulators admit little work has ever been done to confirm whether those simulations actually predict emissions levels at Radford, or whether those emissions are indeed safe.
Here’s how the simulations work: The Army or its contractors estimate the amount and types of materials they plan to burn. They plug that information into software that uses a calculation to help them estimate how much chemical emissions would be dispersed into the community. That calculation is usually based on a handful of field experiments. Radford’s calculation was based on a tiny sampling of explosives burned in an enclosed box, state regulators say. The Army and the EPA generate what’s called an “emissions factor” for a type of explosive, and then use that to estimate emissions for burn grounds across the country, depending on the weight of materials they disclose burning.
The government then plugs those figures into a second model to estimate how far the pollutants will travel from the burn site. Once it has that information, it makes a final calculation to guess whether people will breathe more than federal toxicology studies suggest is safe. That last step attempts to translate the EPA’s abstract figures for average lifetime exposure to a certain chemical into real-life limits that are supposed to consider brief but intense exposures, often to multiple cancer-causing toxins at the same time.
Just how well such models comport with the reality of burns in a place like Radford is the subject of considerable scientific skepticism. 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.
Andrew Kassoff, president of the environmental services firm EEE Consulting, has expertise in burn permits and has written environmental impact statements for both BAE and its predecessor, Alliant Techsystems, for other operations at the Radford plant. He said the models used to declare safe limits on emissions from open burns are outdated and “squirmy,” and were never able to fully account for the variables involved.
“By definition, the migration of contaminants is uncontrolled,” he said.
Ashby Scott writes the Radford open burn permit for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Scott said that as faulty as the permit calculations may be, they were based on extremely conservative estimates of exposures meant to prioritize public safety. The Department of Defense argues that this system of approximation works, in part because the experimental field tests show that the vast majority of the toxins are consumed by the fires and the pollution is relatively light.
The one step that hasn’t been taken: air sampling in the vicinity of homes and schools surrounding the Radford plant. In the first 70-some years that operators burned waste at Radford, neither the Army, nor the EPA, nor the state of Virginia ever actually measured the air pollutants coming from the burn pads or took samples in the nearby community.
“Our regulatory agencies do not feel that that is warranted,” said Rob Davie, chief of operations for the Army at the Radford plant told ProPublica in a recent interview. “There just hasn’t been a real need.”
In late 2016, the Army took its first samples of the smoke coming off its burn pads at Radford, partnering with scientists from NASA and the EPA to fly drones through the plumes. Those measurements attempt to record the actual emissions from the burns, but they still do not measure how pollutants may reach the surrounding community. Still, they’ll use that new data, DEQ regulators say, to reach a more precise risk assessment the next time they submit an application to renew the plant’s permit. The Army has described some of the findings to the local press, but has yet to make all of the air sampling results public. And they still haven’t sampled the air at homes and schools, where EPA models — and even the Army’s own analysis — suggest people are most at risk.
Davie said ambient testing in the community wouldn’t be able to identify which pollutants came from open burns and which came from other sources. He said the Army burns far less than its permits allow, and has invested heavily in environmental improvements across the Radford plant to measure or reduce pollution, including the recent drone monitoring. It would spend more if the benefits were evident.
Still, Virginia officials said they thought the cost of air monitors, which can run about $30,000 each, was one reason the Army was hesitating.
“You see resistance on the part of the facility to extend that kind of money,” Newman said.
Most people in towns like Radford trust the U.S. military to keep them safe, and to do it with honor. They have watched decades of wars — or fought in them — and saluted the military’s triumphs and mourned its losses without ever much questioning what would happen to the bombs, mortars and other materials left over.
The truth is that those materials litter the American landscape like no other industry or source of pollution ever has. “The Pentagon is the most prolific and profound polluter on the planet,” said Jeff Ruch, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national whistle-blower support organization that has chronicled insider reports of pollution and failed cleanups on military sites for decades.
Many of the nation’s most beautiful parks and wildlands are in fact contaminated military properties. On Martha’s Vineyard, the wildlife estuary of Tisbury Great Pond, which the New York Times Travel section once described as “the last remaining unspoiled part” of the island, is a former World War II training range still being scoured for bombs. Outside Denver, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge was once a chemical weapons development site described by the Denver Post as the “most polluted piece of ground in America.” More than 1,000 acres remain closed to the public and protected by the Army.
Other sites — similarly transferred out of military ownership — are smaller and more urban, and have been wrapped into the folds of local communities or donated for public use. In the Vista Park neighborhood of southeast Orlando, Florida, Army officials dug up 400 live bombs on the grounds of a middle school in 2008 after an explosion nearby. A month after the cleanup, a school maintenance worker was hospitalized after accidentally detonating a smoke cylinder he found buried under the school’s long jump pit.
Even as the Pentagon confronts its old, polluted sites, new ones are being added to the list. Of the roughly 1,300 federal Superfund sites designated as the nation’s highest cleanup priority, more than 900 are former military properties or sites that produced material for defense purposes, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. At some 6,000 sites, the Department of Defense has acknowledged contaminating drinking water aquifers; the EPA has classified several as so contaminated they can never be restored. At other sites, dangerous chemicals are being discovered that were previously not well understood — and posing new threats to public health that officials are only now coming to grasp.
The Department of Defense claims it has completed remediation at roughly 80 percent of the dangerous sites it has identified through its formal restoration program, certifying them as “response complete” and requiring “no further action.” But, with few exceptions, officials count only sites identified as polluted from past operations, excluding many ongoing problems at active military ranges unless the pollution has already spread into the surrounding civilian community. At other sites, there has been no cleaning, and the only action has been to fence off contaminated areas. Still others have had to be re-cleaned two or three times. The U.S. Government Accountability Office questioned the Pentagon’s success rate several years ago and found it couldn’t document its determination that no more action was needed at nearly four out of 10 of the projects it analyzed.
“This is a difficult business and we are doing the best that we can,” said the Army Corps’ Baker, adding that any program approaching the size of the Pentagon’s environmental cleanups will have problems. “So if we miss something and need to come back we certainly go out and do that.”
But others who have spent careers overseeing the Pentagon’s handling of its domestic properties say it is the drive to spend coveted Defense Department money on weapons and warfighting — not fighting pollution — that undermines cleanups.
“They clean it up in the cheapest, quickest possible manner,” said William Frank, who was a senior attorney in the EPA’s Federal Facilities Enforcement Office for 25 years before he retired last year. “They’ll drive up in a Jeep, take a look out the window and say, ‘Eh, no further action.’ It all comes down to money.”
ProPublica’s examination suggests that since Congress directed the Department of Defense to fix its contaminated sites, the agency has used an array of bureaucratic tools to shorten the list by almost any means legally available. On Cape Cod, the agency argued that an old, unused portion of a bombing range should still be categorized as “active,” fending off EPA regulations that only apply to “closed” sites. Near Port Clinton, Ohio, the Pentagon stopped its cleanup of a range the Army used for practice bombing for more than 60 years while it made sure no other private group could have been responsible for the pollution, according to testimony provided by Ohio environment regulators to the U.S. Senate.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has for decades lobbied Congress for legislation that would make the military exempt from the nation’s most significant antipollution laws — the very laws that compel it to clean up old bases in the first place.
It has also fought to steer the science that determines how some of the most poisonous contaminants are regulated. For example, a central ingredient in most modern munitions is an explosive called RDX that is increasingly turning up at contaminated sites across the country. The Department of Defense is pressing the EPA to walk back its 1990 assessment that RDX is a possible human carcinogen, even though several studies and even some members of the EPA’s own science advisory board suggest the EPA should strengthen its classification, not weaken it.
Where the Department of Defense has committed to full-scale cleanups, it frequently delegates that responsibility to environmental engineering firms that receive lucrative contracts. But those processes, too, have sometimes been troubled.
For years, for instance, the Army relied on a recycling firm to safely dispose of material containing RDX and other explosives at Camp Minden in northwestern Louisiana. But in 2012, after an enormous blast there sent a cloud of debris 7,000 feet into the air, an EPA inspection found the company had been hoarding the explosives it was supposed to be treating, allowing 18 million pounds of them to pile up in hallways, spill out of leaky cardboard boxes, and slowly degrade in the Louisiana heat.
The Department of Defense says that the problems described by ProPublica are outliers in an extraordinarily large program, and that the Pentagon has spent more than $42 billion cleaning up sites across the country. Those cleanups, it says, are prioritized to protect the public’s health, and have kept Americans safe. If progress is slow, the department says that’s in part because it is perennially underfunded by Congress, which allocated about $3.8 billion of the Pentagon’s $597 billion budget to environmental programs in 2015.
While there has been measured progress in certain places, and certainly some success stories, the Pentagon’s annual environmental funding has been steadily dropping. It received $780 million less in 2015 than it did in 2011. Under the Trump administration Defense Department spending is slated to increase, but there’s no indication that means more money will be spent on the environment. In fact, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has signaled, when it comes to Superfund enforcement, that he may weaken the standards the Pentagon is held to. In the meantime, the Pentagon’s use of the money it has, has thoroughly frustrated regulators and others seeking to hold it accountable.
“It’s just not a priority,” said Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat whose district includes several Pentagon cleanup sites. “I don’t think it’s been given the weight that the potential danger to the public warrants.”
That potential danger isn’t going away anytime soon, both because of the pace and quality of the Pentagon’s remediation work and because the amount of aging munitions still to be dealt with is colossal — more than a billion pounds, by the Pentagon’s accounting.
Much of that is and will be disposed of through open burns and detonations.
Last year, the Crane Army Ammunition center in Indiana, 21 miles west of the town of Bedford, burned or detonated more than 10 million pounds of stockpile munitions; McAlester Army Depot in Oklahoma processed another 14 million pounds. The previous year, a private company burned more than 700,000 pounds of Pentagon-related explosives in Colfax, Louisiana.
Laura Olah founded the national Cease Fire Campaign after battling the Army over open burns at a plant near her home in Wisconsin. She said there is a lack of trustworthy and historical data on the burn sites — their operations and their health implications — that has left residents of places like Radford uneasy and angry. Without this information, she says, there is little to compel the Pentagon to switch to alternative disposal processes.
“The debate about risk takes us away from the fundamental issue: There is open burning of hazardous waste,” Olah said. “We can spend years and billions of dollars trying to quantify what that risk is, but it’s an avoidable risk.”
In late March, a dozen or so residents of the Radford area filed into a small room in a business park to hear the Army’s update on a variety of potential contamination issues. One of them involved trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent and potent human carcinogen common at Defense Department cleanup sites, which had been found in groundwater beneath the Radford plant.
James McKenna, the Army environmental engineer charged with handling cleanups at the Radford plant, told those gathered that the public liaison for environmental concerns — a civilian volunteer — would not be present. It marked the fourth straight meeting the liaison had failed to attend.
“It’s been two years,” complained Devawn Bledsoe, a local activist who has a thyroid condition she believes was caused by smoke plumes or water polluted by the plant.
Her attempts to wrest answers from the Army have been so fruitless that she says she has come to think officials are intentionally misleading her.
On this night, she fired questions at McKenna and would not let up. Were contaminants flowing through the region’s porous bedrock? Had the recent detection of perchlorate, a type of rocket fuel, on a nearby farm led to further investigation?
McKenna warned her to stop. Though he has run the plant’s cleanup program for more than 18 years, he told her that he didn’t have the information she sought and that her questions were beyond the scope of the meeting’s agenda.
Bledsoe cursed. McKenna, summoning two armed police officers, kicked her out.
Advocates like Bledsoe have found organizing against the Radford plant’s burns slow going. Outside the fence line of the Arsenal, the bucolic landscape is checkered with the stamps of a blue-collar community: farm fields and century-old hilltop estates are surrounded by defunct car washes and strip malls with laundromats and tire shops. Trump-Pence signs are still staked in front yards. The plant remains an essential driver of southwestern Virginia’s economy. A thousand people still work there. And those people are loyal, to the military and to the jobs it offers.
Yet the five schools in the immediate vicinity of the Radford burn site, including Belview Elementary, are among the most at-risk in the nation, according to a 2009 analysis of pollution risk at schools completed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts and reporters at USA Today. The study used data from EPA pollution models combined with the annual toxic releases inventoried from the Radford plant and focused its findings on school locations. Of more than 127,000 schools nationwide, Belview — which sits at the top of a gully that funnels the smoke directly downwind from the burn site — ranked among the highest for cancer risk. The study pointed to troubling levels of lead and nitroglycerin, among other potentially harmful materials that were being released into the air.
But school officials remain sanguine about the potential danger. Phyllis Albritton, a former board member for Montgomery County Public Schools, said she had tried to raise concerns about the plant with other board members.
“They said, ‘I appreciate that, but most of our parents work there,’” Albritton recalled.
ProPublica asked the district superintendent and Belview’s principal what precautions they take when the Army’s burn alarms sound nearby. They deferred to a spokeswoman, Brenda Drake, who said, “We have not been advised by any regulatory agency that the students at Belview are in danger.”
Like so many in the surrounding towns, the school district’s leaders trust that the Army and regulatory agencies are at least following the rules.
But a review of the plant’s record suggests that is not always the case.
In 2014, the EPA’s office of criminal enforcement, forensics and training conducted a plant-wide investigation of the Radford Arsenal and found serious problems with almost every aspect governed by federal environmental laws, including the data the plant reported to the EPA about the amount of toxins it had to dispose of. Such inspections are done when the EPA or state regulators request them. The resulting report, marked confidential but obtained by ProPublica, found that in 2012 the Army and its contractors misreported the amount of lead, dibutyl phthalate and nitric acid that it shipped off the site as waste. It did not report its copper waste — which can cause respiratory, liver and kidney damage when breathed in high doses — at all. The report meant the EPA’s public records of toxic releases for the Radford plant — the community’s primary tool to measure how polluting it is — may be understated.
It wasn’t just the burning ground that violated its permits, but other facilities that are part of the plant as well. The 2014 inspection found that between 2011 and 2013, Radford’s incinerators and boilers were out of compliance, on average, as often as one out of every two days; they didn’t burn hot enough, or handled material too fast, resulting in more chloride, particulate matter, dioxins and furans, byproducts of chemical manufacturing that distort hormonal development and cause infertility, released into the air than permits say is safe. Hazardous waste reports were either missing or had gaps, one as long as four months. On 287 occasions, the Army and the plant’s operators failed to report excess emissions from its smokestacks, as required. In 2012, the plant released 15,000 gallons of sulfuric acid into a containment dike. Then, a few months later, it released 500 gallons of diethyl ether into the New River, failing to report the emergency to authorities in the time frame required. Four times, plant operators disposed of the ash from hazardous waste burns — illegally — in the trash.
What consequences, if any, resulted from that inspection remain a mystery. Virginia officials say they never saw a copy of the EPA’s 2014 investigation report and were not aware of its findings. They haven’t issued any violations and declined to comment when ProPublica shared a copy of the report. An EPA spokesman, Roy Seneca, wrote to ProPublica that “we are not going to be able to respond to your questions” on the matter, and the agency has yet to respond to a formal request for enforcement records. The plant’s operator, BAE, says that it did report its emissions under state law, and that the EPA was applying a different standard. The company said that it has also resolved the vast majority of the other problems, but the Army says it is still — three years after the report was issued — in talks with the EPA over next steps. “Mistakes are going to be made in large programs,” said Davie, the plant manager. “Our day-to-day compliance with all of our wastewater discharges, treatment plants, etcetera are really excellent when you look at the totality of what we are doing.”
In the past, the plant has been slow to correct errors, according to the EPA’s criminal investigators. The agency’s 2014 report states that after a similar inspection in 2010, the Radford plant did not take immediate action and failed to document how it corrected violations. Of 22 corrective actions ordered at that time, 16 lacked confirmation that they had been completed or an explanation for why they might have been ignored.
The situation at Radford — its expired permit status and its history of violations — isn’t unique. ProPublica’s review shows that more than a dozen other burn sites nationwide operate with “interim permits,” effectively suspended in regulation limbo ever since Congress passed the hazardous waste laws in 1984. And Virginia Department of Environmental Quality officials say it often takes years to renew permits like Radford’s that have expired. Meanwhile, military sites with active federal permits continue to rack up violations for the way they handle, treat and dispose of hazardous waste — 76 since 2015 alone.
Virginia regulators, who have primary authority to monitor Radford’s open burn operations, haven’t always held the Army to the previous permit conditions.
In August 2011, plant operators piled the burn pads with nearly twice as much waste as allowed, emitting 30 percent more chromium, a metal that causes lung and sinus cancers, into the air than is permitted, according to state documents. State regulators warned the plant but never issued a formal violation.
A few months later, the plant’s operator sought to change its permit to make the excess chromium legal despite the fact that the previous threshold was supposed to be, as a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality, William Hayden, put it, “the maximum amount that can be out there and not cause harm.” The company ultimately withdrew its request in the face of public concern.
In November 2014, the plant violated its emissions limits again — this time for lead — and the state similarly avoided issuing a formal violation, telling ProPublica it wasn’t warranted, in part because the excess discharge occurred for a short period of time.
The state doesn’t keep track of what Radford burns each day — and it isn’t regularly notified of the burn schedule, Hayden told ProPublica. Instead the Army keeps a daily diary, and every two years or so, state regulators audit it. BAE and its tenants are entrusted to self-report violations to state regulators — for all operations, not just the burn grounds — who then follow up. But the 2014 EPA investigation found instances where the plant’s operators appeared not to have self-reported.
The EPA estimates that health risks to people who live near the Arsenal are more than 158,000 times greater than for those who live in other towns in Virginia.
Darlene Nester’s family has a long connection to the plant. Her father worked there in the 1940s, and her husband worked there in the 1990s. She did a stint there as well, preparing explosive powders.
“We need the work,” said Nester, who worried that if residents criticize the plant or call for emissions controls, “it might put the Arsenal out of business.”
Still, her granddaughter attends Belview Elementary and she fears emissions from the burn site are endangering the little girl’s health.
A few local residents have pressed for more research, and in 2012 a branch of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a health study to find out if pollution from the plant was connected to the high rates of illness in the area. Federal health authorities analyzed water pollution at the plant and whether people in the area were being exposed to it, then declared that residents were not at risk. But the study didn’t examine the causes of illnesses or take air samples in the broader community.
“It didn’t look at the main concern,” said Heather Govenor, an ecologist and member of the Army’s Restoration Advisory Board at Radford, which guides the plant on environmental cleanups. “Instead of butting heads about not doing it, why don’t we just get some data? If you’re sure it’s not a problem, then, cool.”
The lack of good information has left the community guessing.
Sarah Garst is a marathon runner who for 15 years ran in the area surrounding the plant, including along the New River less than five miles from the Radford burn site. At the age of 33, she was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer — a cancer for which her family has no history. Garst knows well that it’s nearly impossible to tie a cancer to a specific environmental culprit. But she can’t stop thinking about the plant’s pollution and litany of environmental infractions. Two years ago, a friend was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, too, then a few months later Garst’s running partner, a 50-year-old man with whom she has little in common except their use of the same trails, received a similar diagnosis.
“It leaves me uneasy,” Garst said. “He’s older than I am, he’s male, we have different situations, and that’s our common thing, that we do that.”
Proving these cancers are linked to the Arsenal, or even to pollution, is exceedingly difficult. Doctors point out that thyroid disease, often linked to chemicals in rocket fuel, is also genetically common in that part of Virginia, further muddying the issue. But without air pollution data, it’s difficult to even try to answer the question, let alone measure any other effects the pollution may be having on public health.
State environmental regulators say they don’t consider the plant’s implications on health aside from ensuring the open burn permit meets federal standards. Virginia’s Department of Health hasn’t gotten involved, deferring responsibility to federal agencies. “They are the ones that do the toxicology,” said Dwight Flammia, the chief toxicologist with the Health Department. “They do the investigation because the data is all federal.”
The government’s 2016 sampling effort, in which a drone was used to collect material from the burn plume, has been the most advanced thus far, and what little information has been released on its results has only served to contradict the Army’s past assurances.
Last fall, the Radford base’s commander was quoted in The Roanoke Times acknowledging that the air samples measured perchlorate — a rocket fuel linked by the CDC to thyroid disease. This, a few months after the same commander defiantly told the newspaper, “We do not burn perchlorates. We do not have perchlorates.”
In early 2016, low levels of perchlorate were detected in public water supplies, and in the water of a nearby farm that grows food for Virginia Tech. The plant’s operations manager said the final results would not show perchlorate, and the plant’s commander, Alicia Masson, who was recently reassigned, declined to comment.
Newman, the risk assessor for Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, said of the Arsenal: “They suffer a trust deficit that sticks with them.”
The Army command at Radford maintains that it is improving both its environmental conduct and its relationship with the public. It points out that it has run two incinerators for explosives since the 1970s, but they can’t handle all explosives, leaving open burns the last resort. Davie, the plant’s manager, says Radford has focused on reusing and recycling excess materials, recently investing in a large acid recycling plant, and also just replaced its coal-fired boiler plant with a cleaner, gas-fired facility.
But the Army did not address its specific apparent violations in response to ProPublica’s questions, and it could not say when the long-awaited results from last year’s air sampling would be released.
That’s left Garst and others to try to connect the dots on their own.
“If they are skirting the edges of the rules and not doing what they are supposed to do, they are exposing people,” said Christopher Sonnier, an endocrinologist who has treated Devawn Bledsoe and several other Radford-area residents for thyroid disorders.
The Department of Defense should understand that burning its hazardous waste can hurt people. It learned the hard way under the pressure of war.
At dozens of Army and Air Force bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pentagon contractors dug gaping holes just steps from the flapping doorways of tents where soldiers slept and ate. In those holes, they dumped their munitions and their garbage, from medical waste to cafeteria trays to used tires, lighting it all on fire. The billowing smoke could block out the sun and engulf soldiers in hazardous plumes, heavy with metals and dioxins and an ugly soup of other carcinogens.
The burn pits are now believed to have sickened soldiers and other personnel. In personal statements filed in a class-action lawsuit against KBR, a military contractor that operated the burn pits, soldiers described throat tumors and nodules in the throat, chronic respiratory problems, asthma, hearing loss and cancers.
The military burns in Iraq and Afghanistan took place virtually alongside soldiers and included items not being burned in the U.S., but there are plenty of similarities. While the Department of Defense won’t say exactly how much of the material burned overseas was munitions, it does state that 80 percent of the material was “combustibles,” not counting cafeteria materials, clothing and medical waste. Also, more than 40 percent of the plaintiffs who joined the class-action suit — 160 people — described seeing live munitions, munitions boxes, ammunition and unexploded ordnance dumped into the burn pits at the bases where they were stationed.
The domestic burns also contain explosives and material from bullets and other munitions. In addition, Army and EPA records show that Radford, for instance, sometimes also burns miscellaneous nonexplosive material with its own dangerous chemical profiles: metals, flash tubes and filter bags, diesel fuel, cleaning pads and even cardboard and wood.
In the end, many of the chemical fingerprints — fine particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins and furans — are the same.
Health complaints from Iraq and Afghanistan vets have been treated very differently, however. As in Radford, the Pentagon long resisted recognizing risks or addressing residents’ health concerns. But in the end, Congress held hearings. The Department of Veterans Affairs created a health registry where more than 110,000 soldiers have stated their complaints. Former President Barack Obama signed legislation outlawing the war-zone burn pits.
All the while, here in the U.S., open burns have remained standard operating procedure, even though there are demonstrably safer options.
When East Germany reunified with the West it brought with it a stockpile of 440 million pounds of antiquated munitions that needed to be disposed of almost overnight.
Understanding the risks of burning the material, the Germans sought an industrial technique that could process large volumes of waste quickly and cheaply. They used a high-pressure water jet to clean out the munitions, separating the materials and allowing the parts to be reused.
Soon enough, the stockpile was gone. The Netherlands, Sweden and Canada also have banned all or most open burns and detonations, developing new technologies to get rid of military waste instead.
Why the U.S. Department of Defense hasn’t replaced open burning as its go-to method of disposal is an increasingly urgent question.
The permits the military has used for decades to conduct burns, after all, are essentially an exemption that federal law explicitly frames as a last resort.
Internal EPA documents outline eight technologies — from the high-pressure water jets used in Germany to chemical baths that dissolve explosives and break down their molecular bonds — for safely disposing of the explosives that the Army maintains are too dangerous to handle any way but burning.
Some of the most straightforward alternatives — clean-burning incinerators — are already used in scattered military locations in the U.S. At Camp Minden, the former ammunition plant in northwestern Louisiana where EPA officials uncovered the 18 million pounds of untreated explosives, Army officials planned to burn all of it. Then they relented, commissioning an enclosed burn chamber in which millions of pounds of the material could be burned and every ounce of smoke and fumes scrubbed and filtered until there were almost zero emissions. The chamber, according to Bob Hayes, the CEO of El Dorado Engineering, which built it, was designed in nine months, burned 15 million pounds of explosives in one year, and cost about $10 million.
“It’s opened a lot of eyes to what is possible,” said Hayes.
The stumbling block appears mainly financial. One 2012 Army report investigating alternatives to open burning in Tennessee called several of the EPA-identified technologies “viable options” that were “commercially available with acceptable engineering controls for safety,” but then said they would not be cost effective until more stringent — and more expensive — environmental regulations forced the Army’s hand. Another study of alternatives at the Dahlgren Naval Weapons Station in Virginia listed the capital costs of open burn as “$0,” compared to $2 million to $3 million for a contained detonation chamber.
“The Army and other DOD officials don’t have any motivation to push for a change to the way they’ve done it for 70 years,” said Hendrickson, the EPA remediation manager. “Open burn and detonation is the cheapest for them.”
It’s certainly true that some disposal options cost a lot: The Pentagon built two highly specialized contained burn chambers for rocket motors at China Lake, in California, for $100 million.
But environmental regulators say many military analyses ignore the costs of remediating and cleaning the burn sites, figures that often run into the hundreds of millions of dollars and dwarf even the highest cost of alternative technologies. EPA documents show cleanups of burn grounds at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, a Department of Energy site that contributes military technology, will cost $626 million. Fort Wingate, in New Mexico, will cost $192 million. Castle Air Force Base in central California will cost more than $150 million. These figures aren’t tangential environmental costs — completing a cleanup is baked into the Subpart X permits that the Pentagon sites received in order to burn.
Still, alternatives only seem to be deployed after communities have mobilized to fight the burning with a vigor that has proven elusive in many military towns. “Sometimes it’s easier for everybody to just lie low and keep doing what they are doing,” Hayes added. “Short term thinking is the problem. In the immediate, it costs them nothing to keep burning.”
The success in Louisiana could be the start of a shift in momentum. In the 2017 Defense Department funding bill, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, supported an amendment ordering the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate alternatives to open burning.
Radford has been operating under an expired burn permit since late 2015, while trying to reach an agreement with the state of Virginia over a new permit. Virginia officials say the state has put off a decision because it wants to make the conditions more stringent, and the renewal might just give the state the leverage it needs to force the Pentagon’s hand.
“It certainly is an effort to encourage them to find a better way to deal with those materials,” said Hayden, the state spokesman.
At first, the Army was predictably resistant. In 2014, it ran a technical evaluation of open burn alternatives and concluded that the “status quo should be maintained.” According to Army documents, they found the alternatives, of all things, to be too dangerous.
The Pentagon, when writing reports like this, usually gets the benefit of the doubt.
“There was and continues to be a fair amount of deference to DOD when it comes to explosives safety,” said Scott, the Virginia environment manager who will write Radford’s permit. “You hope the guys who are dropping the bombs know how to handle the bombs.”
For Scott and others, it’s hard to understand why the Army resists the possibility of a modern incinerator to manage Radford’s explosives waste, especially given the results in Louisiana.
The Army insists the Minden technology isn’t a silver bullet, but says it hasn’t put off new solutions. “There’s never been a reluctance,” said King, the Army director of munitions, who has been involved in Pentagon remediation efforts for more than 40 years. “The Department of Defense has always been searching for alternatives and we continue to do so. The technology has to prove itself out, which the technologies do not.”
Still, when Virginia officials confronted the Army about this recently, Scott said, the Army privately acknowledged that incinerators were a viable option in Radford, but declined to formally agree to a plan to install them.
“Their response was, if we write it down on paper, it makes it real, and then we have to commit to it.”
Each day, the Army inches closer to that commitment. It now says — informally — that it will build an incinerator in Radford, but even if it does, it would take years before it’s in place. The Army isn’t even expected to submit a proposal to the state until mid-2018.
Every week, smoke swirls above the trees near the plant, and the acidic odor settles on Darlene Nester’s house, on the local schools and farming fields and trailer parks and shops.
For Devawn Bledsoe, the foot dragging and decades of delay have led to profound disillusionment. For a long time, she thought her responsibility was to bring light to the issue. Now she thinks it takes more than that. “There’s something so immoral about this,” she said. “I really thought that when enough people in power — the Army, my Army — understood what was going on, they would step in and stop it.”
“It’s hard to see people who ought to know better look away.”
Correction: A prior version of this article stated that lawmakers had granted exemptions to the Pentagon and its contractors to temporarily continue open burns. The exemptions were granted by regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency.
This story was co-published with the Huffington Post.