Open Burning: A Banned Practice That’s Poisoning America

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At ProPublica, Abrahm Lustgarten offers an in-depth report on how munitions plants across America continue to irresponsibly dispose of bomb and bullet waste by “open burning.” The practice, banned 30 years ago, still takes place nearly every day under a permit loophole, putting millions of pounds of toxic chemicals and pollutants into the air, essentially poisoning residents and the environment.

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 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.

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