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Community Members Visit Radford Arsenal

Robbie Harris WVTF Radio IQ

The Radford Army Ammunition Plant, where a large percentage of the nation’s explosives are made, is off limits to the public.

For decades, people have been curious about the Arsenal. Some are concerned about emissions from its many onsite processes, and what effect they might have on human health.  But last week, for the first time, a couple dozen community members got a tour of the World War Two-era facility.

Officials invited a select group onto the facility for a tour. The carefully pre-planned event came just a week after a fire at the plant killed a worker and injured two more

About fifty people who’ve been active at the Arsenal’s quarterly meetings, boarded a bus for a tour of the arsenal grounds, normally off limits to the public; with Lt. Colonel James Scott as tour guide.

“The pipes you see above ground are, for the most part, all steam pipes.  If you see something coming out that looks like smoke or gas, it’s just steam.”

Riding around the arsenal grounds, felt like a trip back to 1941, when the Ammunitions Plant was first built for the World War Two effort.  Old and unused buildings still dot the grounds, as new, high tech versions slowly replace them. 

The tour included a look at the controversial ‘Open Burning Grounds’ or ‘OBG’ on the bank of the New River. Scott told the group, that location was chosen to keep any uncontrolled fires from spreading beyond it, in an era when fire emergency response wasn’t always available. He aslo announced, that the long awaited, new closed incinerator, which would dramatically reduce open burning at the plant, has been fully funded, but won’t be will be up and running until 2023.

He declined to comment on the deadly June 12th fire at the nitrocellulose plant. The tour included a drive-by of the site of a new nitrocellulose that had already been under construction.

The tour bus wended its way around wooded grounds, dotted with wild turkeys.  A bear and other animals have been spotted.  Commander Scott told the group he wanted them to see the beauty of the place.  Heads nodded in agreement. 

Several community members on the tour said they were glad to have the chance to see the controversial installation for themselves.  Erin Card and her family live about 2 miles from its fence line.

“I feel fortunate to have a chance to come on site. It is very strange to be on site, where we’ve had so many concerns. The bus tour that we just got off of was very informative in a way, but there’s still so many questions.”

Echoing a sentiment of many she added, “It’s a little overwhelming, knowing there are thousands of acres we were on --- I don’t know how many acres just on our bus tour, but there’s so much land that’s covered by these processes, processes that I don’t understand. I kind of have more of an appreciation for what they do here, now that I see the facilities.” 

In April, the Arsenal hosted a similar visit for the region’s firsts responders to visit the site.  Local government officials visited in May.  And administrators are planning a full open house for all community members in August.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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