More than 18 million pounds of M-6 artillery propellant and other hazardous explosives are still sitting in bunkers at the Camp Minden military facility in northwest Louisiana. It’s been nearly two and a half years since they were discovered, after a massive explosion rocked the region. Federal and state officials have yet to agree on how to clean it up, but at least the government appears to be scrapping its plan to burn the wartime leftovers in the open air.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently caved to public pressure and invited local advocates and independent experts to join state and federal officials on a “dialogue committee” tasked with identifying alternatives to the government’s original plan – burning the military waste in open trays at Camp Minden. The committee released its recommendations on March 13, and Louisiana state officials are currently reviewing alternative methods of destroying the explosive material.
The public had virtually no say in the original plan, and – after local scientists warned that the outdated process would release cancer-causing vapors into the air – concerned residents of the surrounding area quickly organized a protest campaign to stop the so-called “open burn.”
They held rallies and dug through troves of government documents. They contacted news outlets across the country and took to social media, drawing nearly 9,500 followers to their Facebook page. They demanded that lawmakers and government officials meet with them to hear their concerns about an outdated disposal method that is too dirty and too downright destructive to be shoved down any community’s throat.
Still, the crisis at Camp Minden, which threatens the neighboring towns of Minden and Doyline, is not over yet. The question remains: How will the explosives be disposed of?
“There’s not going to be an open burn, so that is a huge victory,” said Frances Kelly, an activist from nearby Shreveport who helped organize the campaign against the open burn. “The challenge now is how do we get to the safest solution possible.”
While the open burn method is not officially off the table, the EPA worked with the dialogue committee to recommend several alternatives to state officials, including burning the M-6 artillery propellant in an incinerator with pollution controls (an open burn has no pollution controls) and treating the material in a microwave reactor.
The Louisiana Military Department, which runs a National Guard facility at Camp Minden, is reviewing 10 bids to destroy the M-6. Private contractors submitted the bids last week. The bids will not be made public until a contract is awarded, but at least one contractor has publicly proposed chemically recycling the M-6 into fertilizer.
Two independent experts from the dialogue committee are sitting in on the bid review, which will be completed by mid-April.
The dialogue committee’s recommendations lay out the pros and cons to each alternative method of destroying the M-6, which the Army has warned will be at an increased risk of exploding by the end of the summer.
Kelly and others on the committee are generally opposed to incinerators, which can produce considerable air pollution when problems occur and have been opposed by other communities near weapons depots across the country.
“That’s why I am not supporting an incinerator, because there has been a long history of communities saying that these are not safe and clean enough,” Kelly told Truthout.
Kelly said that she is advocating for a technology that involves treating the explosives with super-pressurized water, which speeds up oxidation and breaks down the dangerous chemicals within the explosives. The wastewater can then be tested and treated without polluting the air.
EPA Finally Listens to the Public
The formation of the dialogue committee suggests a serious change of tune at the EPA, which angered local residents when it announced the original open burn plan at a public meeting in late 2014.
Following recommendations from the Army, the EPA approved the original open burn plan last October, two years after a massive explosion at Camp Minden shook houses and broke windows in nearby residential areas.
After the explosion, investigators found that a private Army contractor had improperly stored the M-6 along with 3 million pounds of other explosives in and around bunkers at Camp Minden, which has long been home to munitions manufacturing and storage facilities.
The contractor, Explo System, went bankrupt as its top employees were indicted on criminal charges for illegally storing the explosives, and the stockpile became a political hot potato. The Army refused to take responsibility for the cleanup – it had signed over its property at Camp Minden to the state in 2005 and claimed to have wiped its hands clean of the M-6 in its contract with Explo – while it warned the EPA and state officials that the material was degrading and the risk of another explosion was increasing by the day.
After months of bureaucratic disputes and legal snafus, the Army signed an agreement to pay the state $20 million to clean up the mess using the open burn method under EPA oversight. The open burn would have been one of the largest in US history, but the EPA declared the decision an “emergency action” exempt from public comment and environmental impact reviews.
Under heavy criticism from state officials and facing mounting public backlash, the EPA extended the state’s deadline for choosing a contractor in late January while announcing the formation of the dialogue committee to give those living in the danger zone some input.
Maintaining Community Momentum
Kelly said the dialogue committee was a “good process,” and the local residents involved came away feeling relieved that the government was finally paying attention to their concerns.
Defeating the open burn plan, she said, made it clear that, sometimes, everyday people can hold their government accountable if they stand up and make their voices heard.
“It was really a process of discovering our own power and using it,” Kelly said.
The communities neighboring Camp Minden will not be in the clear until the M-6 is destroyed in a responsible fashion, and Kelly said the momentum behind the movement to stop the burn will continue, even after the crisis is resolved.
“Core team members are already asking, ‘What else can we take on? What else can we fix in Louisiana, where we have so many problems, particularly environmental problems?'” Kelly said.