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Soon after Erin Card moved to within two miles of the Radford Army Ammunition Plant in Virginia two years ago, she began to notice threads of smoke that occasionally rose above the heavily wooded site. She started asking about the source, and eventually was stunned by what she learned: Toxic explosives were being burned in the open air.

“It just seems crazy to me,” said Card, 36, who lives with her husband and their three young boys.

The open burning and open detonation of hazardous waste explosives is banned in many countries, including Canada, Germany and the Netherlands. Likewise, in this country, private industry long ago was forced to abandon the primitive disposal practice.

But the U.S. military and Department of Energy have been allowed to continue the open burning and detonation of explosives and, in a few cases, even radioactive wastes under a 1980 exemption from the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA exemption was granted to provide time to develop better disposal techniques. Yet today, the U.S. allows open burning and detonation in at least 39 locations, according to federal data obtained by FairWarning. In the continental U.S., that includes 31 military sites, at least five Department of Energy operations and one private business that handles wastes for the Department of Defense.

The government also continues the practice in Guam and the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, where open detonation, practice bombing and weapons development have fueled controversy for more than 6o years.

“It’s crazy that in the 21st century, they’re still allowed to do it,” said Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs, an environmental watchdog group monitoring the cleanup of an open burn site at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California. Plans call for the construction of thousands of homes within a mile of the open burn site at Lawrence Livermore – which, Kelley argues, will expose residents to a range of toxic emissions. “It’s an extremely crude technology,” she said.

Up in Flames

Decades after open burning of hazardous waste was all but eliminated in favor of more environmentally sound disposal methods, the U.S. military continues to use open burning and open detonation to destroy munitions at dozens of sites across the country and in U.S. territories. Several Department of Energy sites involved in nuclear weapons production also use open burning (Click on flame icons to identify the sites.).

The EPA allows the open burning of waste explosives if it won’t bring “unsafe releases” into the surrounding environment. But burning and detonating explosives in the open appear to do just that. Ken Shuster, a veteran EPA expert in hazardous waste disposal, described the “tremendous amount” of air, soil and groundwater contamination caused by open burning in a presentation he gave last October to fellow agency employees.

According to Brian Salvatore, a Louisiana State University expert in toxic emissions, the open burning of explosives routinely releases some of the most potent known toxins, including cadmium, dioxins and furans. “There’s a whole assortment of them, and it’s really awful,” he said.

What’s more, alternative disposal methods long have existed, and the Defense Department has been urged to use them for decades. As far back as 1991, the EPA told the Pentagon that “safe alternatives” to open burning and detonation “can and should be developed.” In 1997, Congress told the Defense Department to come up with environmentally clean disposal methods for munitions, rockets and explosives within five years, but little progress was made.

Even the argument that Pentagon officials often raise about open burning being cheaper than the alternatives is far from certain. The EPA’s Shuster said it is a “myth” when you factor in the environmental cleanup costs—sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars—at open burn sites. “We’re finding that’s it not so cheap if you include the total costs,” he told his colleagues.

In an email to FairWarning, Army spokesman Wayne V. Hall said the Defense Department has reduced its use of open burning and open detonation and is evaluating new technologies to enable it to cut back further. Hall said open detonation is used in emergencies, when munitions are determined to be unsafe for storage or transport and when no other option exists because of the munitions’ “size and explosive content.”

The Defense Department, he added, “must continually balance our commitment to being good stewards of the environment with our commitment to accomplishing missions vital to national security.”

The EPA failed to respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

The latest defense spending bill included an amendment requiring the National Academy of Sciences to study alternatives to open burning. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat who helped push through the amendment, has long championed the cleanup in her home state of Wisconsin at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant, which used to conduct open burning. “This will ensure that other sites are not contaminated the way that the Badger site was,” Baldwin wrote in an email.

But some believe the National Academy’s study—to be completed by June 2018 — is no more than foot-dragging. Open burning of explosives has persisted despite years of evaluation of alternatives and even though some of those methods already are being used to destroy some of the nation’s stockpile of chemical weapons, which are generally considered more difficult to break down.

Ted Prociv, former deputy assistant to the Secretary of Defense for chemical and biological matters, characterized the new congressionally approved study as an academic exercise. He said the military should instead conduct practical tests using alternative disposal systems already available and then decide on whether to ban open burning and detonation. Prociv is currently a project coordinator for one such system, the Davinch detonation chamber, which he said was used to dispose of chemical weapons in Japan as far back as 1992. A ban, Prociv said, is “the only thing that’s going to get these guys to do anything.”

“Monstrous” legislative quagmire

The munitions stockpile needing to be destroyed is staggering. According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, the total as of February 2015 was 529,373 tons. The Pentagon estimates that from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2020, another 582,789 tons will be added.

Part of that stockpile sits at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky. The base alerts the surrounding residents before any open burning or detonation, whose blasts can be heard six miles away at the office of Craig Williams, program director of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation. “When you start hearing things blowing up, theoretically you’re supposed to be prepared,” he said.

Williams, a foe of open burning who previously campaigned for the Defense Department to dispose of chemical weapons safely, says a “monstrous” legislative quagmire awaits anyone challenging such a widely used military practice as open burning.

Experts, though, warn of the potential consequences of inaction. The EPA’s Shuster, in his recent presentation, described “unbelievable” high levels of toxic groundwater contamination from the open burning of explosives, involving chemicals such as RDX, TNT and perchlorate. He said the contaminants, all linked to human health problems, in some cases have penetrated drinking water systems.

As for the toxic air emissions, LSU’s Salvatore said they sometimes aren’t properly monitored. He said that’s partly because the most sophisticated technologies to detect fine particulates are rarely used, and also because the emissions are dispersed. “You have no stack or chimney to concentrate the focus of the emissions. They just go willy-nilly everywhere,” he said.

Inadequate air and groundwater monitoring can extend beyond the perimeter of bases as well, sometimes making it difficult to verify the source of toxic contamination in surrounding areas. Perchlorate, for example, is a contaminant released through open burning at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant in southwest Virginia. Though plant officials maintain that it’s unlikely perchlorate contamination of nearby drinking water supplies comes from open burning, they said it hasn’t been “determined definitively.”

The iffy assessments are little comfort for Erin Card, the mother who can see the smoke from open burning at Radford. Her husband has suffered from cancer, though he’s now in remission. The eldest of their young boys, Rex, now 5 years old, had a cyst by his thyroid removed. Although the family moved to within close range of the base only around a year and one-half ago, they have lived in the general area, within five miles of the plant, for more than 12 years. “Sometimes, I feel sick to my stomach with worry,” Card said.

A dearth of data makes it hard to prove the links that critics suspect exist between open burning and chronic health problems among nearby residents. A 1991 Boston University study found that residents near a former open burn site in Massachusetts had higher than expected rates of lung cancer and that a causal link to open burning was possible.

Some experts suspect that chronic health problems suffered among soldiers who worked at burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq is related to their exposure to toxic substances. But conventional explosives being burned in the U.S. are merely one type of the hazardous materials — including gasoline, pesticides, medical wastes, animal and human carcasses and possibly chemical weapons—that were burned in those war zones. The Department of Veterans Affairs is still studying the long-term health effects from exposure to these sites.

Decades of monitoring

The lasting environmental impact from some open burning, however, is difficult to dispute. At Wisconsin’s Badger Army Ammunitions Plant, which stopped open burning in 1996, hundreds of monitoring wells track miles of groundwater pollution. Large groundwater plumes contaminated with chemicals such as DNT and chlorinated solvents from two former burn sites there still flow into the Wisconsin River, according to the Army’s monitoring well data. “The Army said that they’re going to be out here for decades monitoring the groundwater,” said Laura Olah, executive director of Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger.

(A spokesman for Badger, Mike Sitton, confirmed that the groundwater monitoring will continue for decades because the Army is using a passive process known as monitored natural attenuation, or MNA, to break down the contaminants naturally. He said the monitoring ensures that there will be little risk to public health.)

Occasionally, open burning and detonation has proven controversial enough to prompt shutdowns. That was the case at the Sierra Army Depot in Northern California, where blasts were so powerful, they rattled windows of nearby homes. In 1999, the depot was the second-worst source of toxic chemicals in all of California, according to EPA data. A lawsuit filed by local residents and environmentalists was settled with the Army agreeing in 2001 to open burn or detonate munitions only in an emergency.

Public pushback also shut down open burning at the former Louisiana Army Ammunitions Plant, now known as Camp Minden. Plans to open burn some 15 million pounds of M-6 propellant provoked uproar, forcing the plant two years ago to instead install a contained burn system to incinerate the stockpile. (Now that the incineration of the waste explosives is nearly complete, the contained burn system also is due to be shut down and removed, following a campaign by local activists to prevent Camp Minden from becoming a long-term disposal site.)

According to Ralph Hayes, founder of El Dorado Engineering, which designed and built the incinerator at Camp Minden, the air emissions from the contained burn unit were cleaner than the ambient air. But incinerators won’t singlehandedly solve the problem of open burning, say experts.

“The disadvantages of incinerators are many,” said John Follin, the founder of General Atomics, a San Diego-based military contractor. The company builds what are known as Super Critical Water Oxidation systems that dispose of wastes by cooking them in water in a pressurized chamber. He says the process leaves behind water and occasional salts and metallic oxide particles. In contrast, Follin says, some incinerated explosives still emit dangerous chemicals while they are being destroyed, such as dioxins, furans, and nitrogen oxides. He added that they can leave behind toxic residents or, as he put it, “a hell of an ash problem.”

Incinerators are one of the options being reviewed at the Holston Army Ammunitions Plant in Tennesee, where smoke from open burning has clouded the skies since the 1940s. A 2012 Army Corps of Engineers report identified two alternative disposal methods that can be used to destroy “all present and future wastes” at Holston, but the Army still is “pursuing alternative technologies,” said Justine Barati, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department’s Joint Munitions Command.

Barati, in an email, said the plant operates in “strict compliance” with its permit conditions. But it appears that hasn’t always been the case. In 2015, the Tennessee Division of Solid Waste Management found that Holst0n had illegally burned, among other things, materials contaminated by toxic compounds called PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls.

For Mark Toohey, a 61-year-old juvenile court judge whose hometown is nearby Kingsport, Tenn., the smoke seemed like no more than a minor nuisance for decades. In fact, he didn’t even know whether it was coming from Holston or from one of the region’s heavy-polluting plants. But five years ago, when the plumes started getting thicker and darker, Toohey was horrified when he finally learned that the source was toxic explosives being burned in the open air at the military site.

Toohey, who lives a mile and one-half from Holston, blames the smoke for triggering the chronic asthma and severe sinusitis that his wife, Connie, suffers. Their daughter, Jenna, who lives close by, is also troubled by severe sinusitis. The health threat created by the burning is “morally indefensible,” Toohey said.

Now, when the fires burn on base, the Tooheys shut themselves inside and close all of the doors and windows. One time, when the smoke was especially debilitating, the Tooheys packed their bags and left town. He said he can barely believe the Army allows this environmental hazard to continue. “What,” he asked, “does this say about how caring they are about the people around these sites, including their own employees?”

About FairWarning

This story was reported by FairWarning (, a nonprofit news organization based in Pasadena, Calif., that focuses on public health, safety and environmental issues.