More than two years have passed since investigators found 15 million pounds of hazardous and potentially explosive artillery munitions waste known as M-6 at the Camp Minden military facility in northwest Louisiana, but the government’s plan for cleaning up the mess is once again unclear as federal regulators haggle with an angry public and the Jindal administration.
On January 15, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that Louisiana state officials would have an extra 90 days to choose a contractor and a disposal method for cleaning up M-6 propellant, 15 million pounds of which was illegally stashed at Camp Minden by a private US Army contractor and discovered after a massive explosion rocked the area two years ago. The extension would give authorities time to consider alternatives to the original plan – burning the waste in open trays at the site.
Opposition to the so-called “open burn” had reached a fever pitch. In December, a local scientist pointed out that chemicals within the M-6 have been linked to cancer and birth defects. Fearing that pollutants from the open burn would enter the air unabated and contaminate neighboring communities with cancer-causing vapors, concerned citizens launched a campaign to demand that authorities find a cleaner alternative for disposing of the waste.
The number of burn opponents on social media quickly grew by the thousands as word spread from the neighboring towns of Doyline and Minden to the nearby city of Shreveport. Environmentalists across the country, including famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich, signed petitions and letters opposing the open burn. Lawmakers, local officials and environmental justice experts demanded that the government listen to the concerns of its citizens.
For the open burn opponents, the EPA’s announcement was a breakthrough. The EPA was finally listening to a public that had no say in the matter when an emergency agreement to openly burn the M-6 had been signed with the Army, behind closed doors, a few months earlier. State agencies tasked with the disposal could now find an alternative, such as building an incinerator with pollution controls or recycling the hazardous waste into something useful.
It soon became clear, however, that the fight to stop the open burn was far from over.
Another round of the sort of bureaucratic finger-pointing that plagued the government’s initial response to the Camp Minden crisis quickly erupted in the days following the EPA’s announcement.
“All of the legislators, state and federal, and all of the citizens don’t want an open burn, and now it’s bomb throwing back and forth,” said Gene Reynolds, a state representative from Minden, in a press conference last week.
EPA regional deputy director Samuel Coleman sent a letter to the Louisiana National Guard and Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), the two state agencies tasked with disposing of the M-6, notifying them that the EPA would “help remove any barriers” to finding an alternative disposal method by extending the deadline. Coleman also wrote that his agency recognizes that “the state of Louisiana is in a difficult position as owner of the deteriorating M-6” and “has the ultimate responsibility” for its disposal.
The letter set off alarm bells at the LDEQ. On January 16, LDEQ Secretary Peggy Hatch sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the agency’s top federal official, requesting that she “personally intervene to address the consistent mishandling” of the M-6 disposal by the regional EPA office.
Hatch wrote that she was “very troubled” by the way the EPA had communicated with Louisiana residents about the disposal and had been “consistently unwilling or unable to articulate the science behind its decision” to burn the M-6 in open trays. Hatch claimed that choosing an alternative method would void the original cleanup agreement between the agencies and the Army, sending all parties back through years of negotiation.
“It is also very troubling that its own failures have resulting in EPA Region 6 attempting to abandon its responsibilities as lead agency on the project,” Hatch wrote.
The LDEQ and National Guard are indeed in a difficult position. Camp Minden, which now hosts a prison, a National Guard camp and a school for youth, has been a munitions processing plant with a toxic legacy spanning decades. The munitions plant produced weapons for the Army on the site from World War II until 1994. A few years before the plant shut down, the site became a federal cleanup priority because an unknown amount of water laden with hazardous chemicals such as TNT had contaminated the groundwater, and the federal government incinerated over 101,000 tons of soil and treated 50 million gallons of water, according to EPA documents.
The Army transferred ownership of the site to the state of Louisiana in 2005. Private contractors continue to produce, store and demilitarize munitions at the site. In October 2012, a massive explosion at Camp Minden sent a 7,000-foot mushroom cloud into the air, shook houses for miles around, and broke windows in homes and businesses.
State police investigating the explosion discovered that Explo Systems, a private company under contract with the Army, had illegally and haphazardly stored 15 million pounds of M-6 artillery munitions, along with 3 million pounds of other explosives, at Camp Minden. The material was degrading and at risk of exploding again, a risk that federal authorities claim increases by the day as the M-6 continues to sit in temporary storage at the site.
Government action did not come swiftly despite this threat. Explo went bankrupt after its top employees were indicted on criminal charges, and in early 2014, the EPA ordered the Army to cleanup the mess left by its contractor. The Army refused and continued to challenge EPA orders until the Justice Department stepped in and brokered an emergency deal behind closed doors in October 2014, two years after the explosion.
The Army agreed to pay the state $20 million, and the LDEQ, National Guard and EPA were put in charge of the cleanup. The method would be open burn. Up to 80,000 pounds of M-6 would be burned per day, making the disposal operation one of the largest in US history. The EPA did not conduct a standard environmental impact analysis of the open burn plan, and the public had no say in the decision.
Reynolds said the process was full of miscommunications and had as many “twists and turns” as a mystery novel.
“I’m tired of the old saying, somebody peeing on my back and telling me it’s raining,” Reynolds said.
To get the facts straight, Reynolds held a meeting with officials from the EPA, its state partners and independent experts earlier this month. Reynolds said the EPA was unable to show enough hard data to dispel concerns that an open burn would expose the public to dangerous carcinogenic fumes.
“You can’t have data on this much M-6 being burned because no one has ever done it before,” Reynolds said.
The EPA changed its tune after coming under heavy public pressure. In statements to Truthout and in a series of public letters, the EPA over the past two weeks has insisted that it supports the state in finding an alternative to open burning the M-6, and it says the public should be involved in the decision.
On Thursday, EPA Regional Administrator Ron Curry sent letters to Reynolds and community activists proposing that a “dialogue committee” of citizens, public officials, independent scientists and representatives from each government agency involved be set up to review alternatives as quickly as possible.
State officials, however, say they are still waiting on the EPA to justify the original open burn plan, on which private contractors submitted bids last week. The original request for bids only entertained proposals for open burning, but at least one company, ARCTECH Inc., ignored the requirement and proposed recycling the M-6 into fertilizer after receiving numerous inquiries from local citizens, according to the company’s press release. A DEQ spokesman told Truthout that the bids are currently sealed.
“We have sent multiple letters to the EPA and the Army demanding that they provide information to the public about the open burn tray disposal they are requiring,” said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in a statement on Wednesday, as he extended the state of emergency at Camp Minden another 30 days. “The federal government, EPA in particular, needs to step up and explain its decision to use open burn tray to the public. It’s time to put an end to the federal government’s bureaucratic double talk and openly address this situation with transparency.”
The EPA, however, claims the finger is pointing in the wrong direction. It was the Army that originally recommended the open burn, the EPA claims, and the original agreement to use the method can be modified.
EPA spokesman David Gray told Truthout that the EPA has found itself in a “difficult situation where LDEQ and Louisiana National Guard have taken the public position that open burning is solely EPA’s idea” versus the reality that the agency simply set up a model to predict potential pollution emissions from open burning, as recommended by the Army Explosives Safety Board.
“Our job is to ensure whatever remedy is protective and conduct the environmental oversight during the cleanup,” Gray said.
The Army has said little publically about Camp Minden since it signed the original agreement to pay for an open burn last year.
Last week, Reynolds traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with an unnamed official on the Army explosives board. The official canceled half an hour before meeting, “citing specific instructions not to talk to elected officials on matters concerning Camp Minden,” according to a post on Reynolds’ Facebook page.
Plenty of Alternatives
Craig Williams is an award-winning environmentalist who has spent the past 30 years convincing the Defense Department to stop incinerating stockpiles of chemical weapons, so he knows a thing or two about how the military can dispose of its vast caches of hazardous leftovers.
“If I was to scope out all of the possible ways to dispose of the M-6 materials stored in Louisiana, and the list went all the way down to the absolute worst way to do it, other than throw it in the creek or something, it would be to open burn this material,” Williams told reporters last week.
Disputes over how to dispose of military weapons are not new, and Williams said the Army and the EPA have already approved a list of advanced technologies that are much cleaner than open burning. The M-6 at Camp Minden could be destroyed in a detonation chamber, for example, or recycled into usable material using chemical processes.
Williams said that even using an incinerator would be better than burning the M-6 in open trays.
“For me to say that goes away from my beliefs that incineration is not an acceptable technology for the disposal for just about anything, but even that would be head-and-shoulders above any kind of open burn or open detonation technology down there,” Williams said.
The EPA’s own guidance documents on handing munitions waste states that open burning is in limited use today because the “significant air emissions released during burning” may violate environmental regulations. In a recent letter to state and federal officials, a group of open burn opponents pointed to internal EPA documents on Camp Minden where several regulators warned against using open burning at the site, arguing that it is a “dirty” and “polluting” technology that will result in “an environmental mess that someone else will need to clean up.”
Jane Williams, director of California Communities Against Toxics and of no relation to Craig Williams, said the federal government has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars studying and developing cleaner technologies for disposing of weapons, so open burning should be obsolete.
“The rules which originally allowed these types of waste explosives to be exempt from our nation’s hazardous waste laws no longer apply, now that the EPA and the Army has permitted these advanced treatment technologies.” Williams said.
The EPA appears ready to listen to the citizens of northwest Louisiana and ditch the open burn plan, but the agency needs cooperation from the Jindal administration, which has a well-known habit of being at odds with the federal government.
“This, at this point, is just a raw political battle,” Jane Williams said. “It has nothing to do with science.”
Corrections: Erin Brockovich is an activist and legal clerk, not an attorney as this article originally stated. This article also incorrectly stated that the LDEQ and National Guard received $20 million on behalf of the Army. That money is in an escrow account controlled by the National Guard, not the LDEQ.