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Radford Arsenal Transparency and Virginia Tech Data Forge Positive Community Relations

Radford Arsenal Facebook Page

After decades of suspicion about what exactly is going on at the Radford Arsenal in southwestern Virginia, community relations are improving. Not only did the first ever area soil and air test results come in at safe levels, but the whole vibe at meetings is changing. 

Emily Satterwite teaches Appalachian studies at Virginia Tech. She says, “It’s been amazing to watch over the past year, the degree to which the tone of the community meetings has shifted from police presence and combative to ‘let’s keep working together.’”

Working with several colleagues, she spearheaded a study that included third party testing of soil air, beyond the arsenal’s walls.  “It was important to everyone to make sure that whatever studies we did felt like they were not swayed by government funding sources.”  Colleague Julia Gohlke, an associate professor in the department of population health science, led a class conducting a community survey on perceptions of the place, where open burning of hazardous waste and the sounds of explosions along the river banks, have long kept people on edge. 

“There’s what science would say is the risk, we call that ‘risk assessment’,” say Gohlke we base it on for, example, what we think a human health level of concern would be that’s what EPA uses.  But there’s also the perception of risk that we want to measure. Both actually are important ultimately, in determining health, because anxiety is a health concern as well.”

She says, “Of the people that did have a concern got the opportunity to tell us what those concerns were, chemical “discharges to the New River came out on top, and concerns about employee safety was not far behind.

It was recently announced, the soil and air tests came back below within E-P-A safety standards. Two years ago, a coal fired plant on site that dates from the 1940s, closed.  This year, Lt. Col. James Scott, after persistent requests from the community, announced a state of the art contained incinerator that will cut the amount of open air burning of military waste on site by 95 percent is expected to be online in 2023.

Despite the positive reception to these developments, the arsenal’s public image is another matter.

Emma Ruby is a junior at Virginia Tech, studying political science and sociology, who worked on the community survey. Four hundred thirty-four people responded to it. “What we found is people are still worried about the arsenal. But they are seeing a positive trend in transparency (about what goes on behind its walls). They have a sense that things are getting better and that they’re being listened to by the arsenal."

It’s important to note that the public sentiment study was done before the results of the air and soil tests were known.  Also, the students pointed out that granular public health data is not available.  For years, people have feared that there is thyroid cancer cluster in people who live near the arsenal.  It has never been proven.  Ruby explained that while there is data on the county level, “We would need data on individual zip codes” and she points out, that kind of personal health data is often private."

Lt. Col. James Scott, who usually leads the meetings –he served as tour guide when the Arsenal invited the public and media for a 2-hour tour of the grounds— says he understands why there has long been so much suspicion and fear about the arsenal.  It stretches some 6,000 acres in Pulaski and Montgomery counties.  Located on the bank of the New River, the nitrates it releases into the water earn it the dubious distinction of ‘Virginia’s number one polluter’ every year.

“When you’re a closed facility, for security reason and for safety reasons, the things that go on here, it’s not an open facility, and no matter how much our neighbor tells us, nothing’s going on behind the fence it just I think human nature (for people to be concerned.)"

But the new transparency by the arsenal is leading to new attitudes. 

Ruby noted that Lt. Col.  Scott was cited by respondents to the survey results for having a positive effect and making people feel their concerns are being heard. “

Regular attendee of the Arsenal’s quarterly meetings, Beth Spillman, applauded the efforts at more transparency and better communication, than in the past. The Arsenal now has its own Facebook page and people say that instead of quarterly meetings feeling as if they're a chore for officials, they now seem more cordial and responsive.  She asked Scott to include the data the students gathered and to keep telling the ‘story’ of the arsenal and the community, how it’s evolving, and what new information is coming in, so that, “We have confidence that we can live in a healthy way, and be defended, and have jobs and have environmental justice. So yeah” she said, “Thank you guys.”  

The students are working on a new website to continue sharing information with the community. It expected to go live, next spring.

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