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Out of site, out of mind – America’s foul military waste pollution in Louisiana

The U.S. military burns millions of pounds of munitions in a tiny, African-American corner of Louisiana. The town’s residents say they’re forgotten in the plume, by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, Photography by Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo, special to ProPublica July 21, 2017 COLFAX, LOUISIANA Two years ago, the U.S. military had an embarrassment on its hands: A stockpile of aging explosives blew up at a former Army ammunition plant in Minden, Louisiana, sending a cloud of debris 7,000 feet into the sky

Local residents, alarmed by toxic contaminants from the accident, were nothing short of furious when they learned what the military intended to do with the 18 million of pounds of old explosives still remaining at the depot. The Army was set to dispose of the explosives through what are known as “open burns,” processes that would result in still more releases of pollutants.

Facing an uproar, the Army turned to a familiar partner to help placate the residents of Minden: A private facility in Colfax, 95 miles south, operated by Clean Harbors, a longtime Defense Department contractor and one of the largest hazardous waste handlers in North America.

The Colfax plant is the only commercial facility in the nation allowed to burn explosives and munitions waste with no environmental emissions controls, and it has been doing so for the military for decades. And so while the Army ultimately commissioned a special incinerator to dispose of most of the Minden explosives, more than 350,000 pounds of them were shipped here. Over the ensuing months, the munitions were burned on the grounds of the plant, fueling raging fires that spewed smoke into the air just hundreds of yards from a poor, largely black community.

Beyond the story of the Minden explosives, the Clean Harbors facility here has become an important clearinghouse for military-related waste as the Department of Defense and its contractors struggle to deal with hazardous byproducts from weapons manufacturing and huge stockpiles of aging munitions. For years, defense-related firms have burned this waste at their own facilities, stubbornly clinging to the practice even as it has been outlawed in parts of Europe and Canada. But the permits to do so have become harder to get, the terms less flexible, and, increasingly, the pollution unacceptable to surrounding communities. Clean Harbors offers a legal way to get rid of dangerous materials from a wide range of sites that can’t or don’t want to handle them on their own.

In 2015 alone, 700,000 pounds of military-related munitions and explosives were trucked to Colfax, where both Clean Harbors and the military have so far been able to outmaneuver a community with abundant concerns but little money, and even less political influence, to fight back.

The Department of Defense did not respond to questions regarding its use of the Clean Harbors burn facility in Colfax, or environmental concerns related to it.

That such material is being shipped anywhere appears to contradict the military’s longstanding claim that these wastes are too dangerous to move, so they must be burned in the open where they were made or used. Yet every year, military bases and defense contractors send munitions or other explosive material to Colfax, packing explosives into cardboard boxes, shuffling them onto 18-wheelers and driving them sometimes thousands of miles across the country. Delivery manifests filed with Louisiana regulators detail the variety of materials: rocket fuel from a missile factory near Los Angeles; hand grenades from a munitions factory in Arkansas; detonating fuses from Cincinnati; solid propellant from an Aerojet Rocketdyne factory in Virginia; explosive lead from a North Carolina military aircraft factory; warhead rockets from a Lockheed Martin facility in Alabama.

Once received, they are burned on a set of 20 metal-lined pans on a parking-lot-like patch of concrete with “no risk to human health or the environment,” according to Clean Harbor’s senior vice president for compliance and regulatory affairs, Phillip Retallick.

The burns take place several times each day, and when they do, they turn parts of Colfax into a virtual war zone.

“It’s like a bomb, shaking this trailer,” said Elouise Manatad, who lives in one of the dozen or so mobile homes speckling the hillside just a few hundred yards from the facility’s perimeter. The rat-tat-tat of bullets and fireworks crackles through the woods and blasts rattle windows 12 miles away. Thick, black smoke towers hundreds of feet into the air, dulling the bright slices of sky that show through the forest cover. Manatad’s nephew Frankie McCray — who served two tours at Camp Victory in Iraq — runs inside and locks the door, huddling in the dark behind windows covered in tinfoil.

Like most of the people who live there, Manatad and McCray find it difficult to believe the booms and clouds aren’t also exacting some sort of toxic price.

Colfax is a rough-hewn, mostly black town of 1,532 people that hugs a levee separating it from the surging mud and wild alligators of the Red River. Fleeing former slaves once camped under thatched tents in the bayou, and a historic marker serves as a reminder that more than 150 “negroes” were once massacred here. Another monument, in the graveyard a few steps away, praises the three white men who also died, as “heroes … fighting for white supremacy.”……

Last November, state environment officials parked an air monitoring van on Bush road a few doors down from Elouise Manatad’s trailer. Manatad says they never told her what they were doing or what they’d found, but lab samples obtained from the state show environmental regulators detected notable levels of acrolein, a highly toxic vapor commonly associated with open burns of munitions. A division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes acrolein as having a “suffocating odor” and causing severe respiratory problems and heart attacks — even at low doses and for as long as 18 months after exposure.

The lab reports also showed low levels of other volatile organic compounds, including benzene, known to cause cancer, and which the World Health Organization warns has “no safe level of exposure.”

Soil, groundwater and stream beds sampled on the Clean Harbors site over the past few months have also been found to contain an array of extremely harmful substances likely connected with the burning of munitions waste. Underground water supplies sampled this spring show perchlorate, a type of rocket fuel, at more than 18 times Louisiana’s trigger levels for additional screening and eight times greater than what California, which sets stringent regulatory limits on perchlorate in groundwater, permits. RDX and HMX, both military explosive compounds, were also detected. Soil tested near the fence line of the facility contained dioxin — a chemical that builds up in fish and affects the human immune, reproductive and nervous systems — at three times the limits that trigger a state safety review. Silt scraped from a stream bed that runs toward the plant’s fence line and a nearby farm contained lead at nearly four times the level that triggers additional state screening.

State inspections also found Clean Harbors in violation of a number of regulations, including handling hazardous waste in unpermitted ways, failing to make repairs to its burn pads, and discharging unauthorized pollutants in violation of its state water permit………

Neither the Louisiana Chemical Industry Alliance nor representatives from Southern Strategies, the lobbying firm hired by Clean Harbors, responded to requests for comment for this story.

In Colfax, the fight endures. The state is pressing for more water and air samples. It is threatening Clean Harbors with sanctions for some of its violations. Its health department has promised to continue watching the issue. But almost nobody — especially Manatad and others living pressed up against the Clean Harbors fence line — expects officials to force Clean Harbors to stop burning altogether.

“I’m pretty sure if they was living in an environment like this they wouldn’t be pleased either, because it’s not safe,” said Annie Tolbert, 80, resting from the heavy heat in her fenced-in porch. Tolbert takes a puff of steroids from an inhaler, prescribed for her severe asthma. “They are not going to listen to us because we are black.”

“But we are citizens, too.”

Abrahm Lustgarten is a senior environmental reporter, with a focus at the intersection of business, climate and energy.

Nina Hedevang, Razi Syed, Clare Victoria Church, students in the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute graduate studies program, contributed reporting for this story. Other students in the program who also contributed were Alex Gonzalez, Lauren Gurley, Alessandra Freitas and Eli Kurland.


July 26, 2017 - Posted by | environment, USA, weapons and war

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