BLACKSBURG–Drew White, a senior English student at Virginia Tech, grew up swimming every weekend in the James and York Rivers. Years later, those memories are one of the reasons that he, along with other Virginia Tech students and Blacksburg community members, recently created a group called Citizens for Arsenal Accountability.
At a press conference Wednesday marking the official launch of the group, Citizens for Arsenal Accountability members said they were concerned that pollution from the Radford Army Ammunition Plant is threatening human health and the local environment, especially the New River.
“I want anybody in the county to be able to jump in that river and spit water out of their mouth and not worry about any toxicity,” White said.
The plant, known by locals as the Arsenal, is the largest polluter in Virginia according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual Toxic Release Inventory. However, most of the pollutants are monitored and in compliance with a permit issued by the Department of Environmental Quality.
But Michael James-Deramo, a community organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, which has partnered with CAA, said that these levels may not be enough to keep the surrounding community as safe as possible.
“If they are meeting levels set by those agencies, that doesn’t mean it’s good enough for communities,” James-Deramo said, adding that agencies such as the EPA or DEQ may not always be able to set an appropriate level of exposure because of conflicts of interest or a lack of funding.
James-Deramo and senior biological systems engineering student Justin Haber, who is the chair of CAA, have attended recent meetings between the Arsenal and the public. Both said they felt the Army has not done a satisfactory job interacting with the public, especially when it comes to providing information.
“It shouldn’t be up to people to prove that they are not being poisoned, it should be up to the polluter,” James-Deramo said.
Haber said the Army has “taken minimal efforts to prove they’re not the cause” of health concerns such as elevated levels of lead in children, or of perchlorate found at Kentland Farm and in public drinking water.
Lieutenant Colonel Alicia Masson, the current Army commander of the plant, said that she welcomes the opportunity to speak with CAA members, though they have not yet contacted the Army.
“We are excited any time a group energizes the community,” Masson said.
However, Masson said that the Arsenal already carries out the kind of “hypervigilant” monitoring requested by CAA members. Preliminary results from a joint study by NASA and the EPA conducted in September have shown that the Army’s computer modeling of pollutant emissions from its open burning is “100 percent accurate,” Masson said.
Additionally, water, soil and air sampling regularly takes place all over the 4,000 acre facility, Masson said, and the DEQ plans on setting up ambient air testing near the plant soon. Ambient air testing is something community members have repeatedly advocated for at quarterly public meetings.
“I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t fully believe in the numbers in front of me,” Masson said.
Masson, who described herself as “an environmentalist at heart,” said she, too, would like to reduce the amount of pollution from the Arsenal, but that completely eliminating the open ground burning is impossible.
Camp Minden, an Army waste disposal site in Louisiana that burns its waste in an enclosed incinerator, is often brought up by environmental activists as a greener solution to the Arsenal’s open burning.
Masson said much of the RAAP’s waste is too large to be safely burned in an incinerator like Camp Minden’s. However, the Army has invested in constructing a combined Energetic Waste Incinerator and Contaminated Waste Processor, which will allow the RAAP to rely less on open burning, and minimize waste.
“I want the best technology for Radford, not the last-minute solution that worked for someone else,” Masson said, referring to the fact that Camp Minden only began burning waste after a dangerously large stockpile of M-16 accumulated and began deteriorating, causing safety risks.
The Arsenal’s open burning ground permit regulates the amount of pollutants released into the environment, which mostly keeps releases below legal limits.
Masson said that if any of the recently found perchlorate was linked to the Arsenal, it would have come from a small amount of waste disposed of by Fireworks by Grucci, a company that leases space at the RAAP. According to Masson, Fireworks by Grucci’s operating permit at the site has since been modified to prevent any further disposal of perchlorate through open burning.
Masson and Rob Davie, a bioengineer and the Chief of Operations at the Arsenal, said most of the RAAP’s recent permit violations are air quality violations from the Arsenal’s coal power plant, and not open burning.
The finishing touches are being placed on a new, $400 million natural gas boiler facility that will reduce the number of these violations and provide the plant with cleaner energy.
Davie said the Army has been working on getting a new energy facility for about 10 years. Of all the projects he has worked on, he is most proud of the natural gas boilers.
A ribbon cutting is expected in May.