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Burning Question: When Will Radford Army Ammunitions Plant Stop Open Burning Toxic Munitions Waste?

Courtesy BAE Systems Radford Arsenal

The Radford Army Ammunition Plant has been making and testing munitions for more than 70 years, and burning toxic waste from the process, outdoors, for just as long. But while a few Department of Defense installations have either ended the practice or adopted cleaner technologies, the timeline for doing so in Radford remains vague. New pollution data and national attention to the problem are energizing the community and the Arsenal staff toward a solution, but the ‘burning question’ remains.  

Results of the first ever real time air pollution measurements from the Radford Arsenal are now being factored into Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality permitting process.

Drones flew through smoke plumes during open burning tests and recorded data showing some toxins present in lower levels than previously estimated, while 5 others were  found to be higher than expected. 

The Arsenal’s permit expired in 2015. Community members say they’re also in limbo when it comes to their one, burning question; the timeline for a new state of the art incinerator.

“They (Arsenal officials) keep saying it’s in the works and we get promises but id doesn’t happen,” says Baldwyn North. North is a farmer who lives in Riner, Montgomery County, not far from the Radford Arsenal, with his wife and 2 young children. 

“It’s taking too long.  Meanwhile we’re all getting poisoned.”

At a meeting last week that lasted almost 3 hours, Arsenal staffers focused on the good news: the old coal power plant on site, responsible for dozens of clean air act violations, is now gone, replaced by one powered by natural gas. 

But during the Q & A period, the burning question kept coming back.  

Michael James-Dramo wanted to know when will there be a timeline for a new incinerator.

Deputy to the Commander, Rob Davie replied, "We’re marching forward with the design.” 

The expectation is that a design plan will be finished by the end of the year.  Funding for it, however, is another issue.

James-Dramo pressed further, saying he wanted a timeline that is as accurate as possible.

To which Commander Davie replied, "all I can tell you is, it’s basically above my pay grade. I don’t get to make that decision.”

James-Dramo countered, “Who do we ask?”

"This hasn't been said formally, explicitly, but it's been said informally, explicitly to me that, they basically need cover from EPA. They need to be forced to comply with regulations to show that the cost is justifiable."

At this point, the Director of Public and Congressional Affairs Justine Barati offered, “What he’s trying to explain, is that there’s a design phase and then there’s a budgeting phase. Radford (Army Ammunition Plant) is 100% marching forward and trying to make it happen but there are other elements of the Army that also have competing projects for funding.  It will be an Army decision."

Abraham Lustgarten is working on a 5-part series about these issues for ProPublica,an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.

“What I hear on background and off the record conversations, at both the Army and the EPA, is that the consensus is very close to or has already arrived at the idea that a new state of the art incinerator which could prevent 95% of  toxic emissions created by the current, open air burning process. So it’s really a question of when - and what the army seems to want is to have its hand forced by EPA."

Lustgarten’s first report, called, Open Burns, Ill Winds, focused on the Radford Arsenal. He points out that these comments are his opinion, based on conversations he has had during his reporting.

“This hasn’t been said formally, explicitly, but it’s been said informally, explicitly to me that, they basically need cover from EPA.

They need to be forced to comply with regulations to show that the cost is justifiable.  If they can’t do that, it’s a ‘voluntary expenditure’ of money and while the defense budget is immense, everybody is fighting for their little slice of that money and it’s very hard to justify spending it.”

While the community waits, people who follow developments about the Radford Arsenal can expect to learn more about toxic emission from the plant. DEQ will soon place its first stationery air monitor near Bellview Elementary school. The meter will be position about 250-meters from the arsenal’s fence line.

Spokesman William Hayden says a $26,000 federal grant will cover the cost. It’s expected to be in operation sometime this fall.