Melissa Downer remembers the evening of October 15, 2012, well. She was kenneling her dogs for the night outside her family home in Minden, Louisiana, when she heard a loud crashing sound that shook the entire house. Downer had no idea what happened until she turned on the television and saw her small town of 13,000 on the news.
A massive explosion had occurred at Camp Minden, a military facility about four miles from the town of Minden and 15 miles from Downer's house. A storage magazine containing about 124,000 pounds of black powder and a tractor-trailer containing 42,000 pounds of M-6, a propellant used for firing heavy artillery, had exploded, sending a 7,000-foot mushroom cloud into the air. Downer's house was not damaged, but the blast shattered windows in nearby homes and businesses and damaged 11 railcars.
"I saw it on the national news and thought, oh, our officials are going to take care of it, no worries," Downer told Truthout.
That was over two years ago. Millions of pounds of M-6 and other explosives are still sitting in degrading bunkers at Camp Minden, and the risk of another explosion increases by the day as the material becomes increasingly weathered and unstable.
After months of bureaucratic disputes between the Army and state and federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced an emergency plan to burn 15 million pounds of M-6 - up to 80,000 pounds a day over the course of a year - on open "burn trays" at Camp Minden, a disposal process that environmental advocates say is outdated and has been outlawed in other countries. The operation would be one of the largest open munitions burns in US history.
Local scientists, elected officials and residents fear the open burn would pollute their communities with cancer-causing vapors. Downer has joined other local residents and activists from the nearby city of Shreveport to oppose the open burn and demand that the EPA find an alternative solution for disposing of the munitions.
"We want the safest disposal of these explosives," Downer said after a recent meeting with a coalition of concerned citizens that sprung into action as headlines brought attention to the proposed open burn in recent weeks. Membership on one Facebook page dedicated to the cause skyrocketed from a few dozen members in early January to more than 7,000 today.
The EPA, however, claims that the deteriorating M-6 is becoming increasingly dangerous and that - without the open burn - the risk of another explosion would be greatly increased by the end of the summer. The agency holds that there is not enough time to use other disposal methods, such as building an enclosed incinerator on site.
Dr. Brian Salvatore, a chemistry professor at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, who also attended the meeting, wants to know why it took the government so long to act on such an urgent situation.
"Why has it taken two years to do this?" Salvatore said.
Salvatore has been a spokesman for the open burn opponents since last month, when he alerted the local media that chemical compounds within the M-6 have been linked to cancer and birth defects and could vaporize into the air during the burning process, posing a serious risk to public health. He has also researched several alternatives to open burning, such as treating the explosives underwater or recycling them into usable materials, raising concerns that the decision to openly burn the explosives is not just about time, but money as well.
During a December meeting with local residents and a panel of state and federal officials in charge of disposing of the M-6, Salvatore asked if the EPA had screened for the dangerous compounds during a test burn in early December. Officials reportedly said they had not run those tests because they could not get close enough due to heat.
"It was uncomfortable," Salvatore said of the meeting, which raised more questions than answers for residents living around Camp Minden, despite assurances from the EPA that the open burn would be safe and monitored by regulators. The public doesn't trust the EPA, Salvatore said, and he is concerned that the agency's regional department is acting in a "rogue" manner.
"What I see is that our leaders are not hearing enough from the public," Salvatore told Truthout.
In a statement, the EPA said it is not conducting a standard environmental impact analysis of the open burn because federal law gives the agency authority to take "emergency action." The agency evaluated other technologies for disposing of the M-6, but chose the open burn method "due to the urgent need to dispose the material" and "recommendations from the US Army Explosive Safety Board."
An Explosive Legacy
Shortly after the 2012 explosion, state police found 15 million pounds of unsecure and illegally stored M-6, along with 3 million pounds of other explosives, at Camp Minden. About 10 million pounds of M-6 had been stored outside of bunkers, where it was exposed to the elements and becoming increasingly unstable and potentially explosive. ExploSystems, a private company under contract with the Army to dismantle bombs and artillery rounds, had improperly stored the massive amount of material, including the M-6 and black powder that caused the explosion.
It wasn't the first explosion at Camp Minden, which also hosts a prison, a school for youth and a training center for the National Guard.
For decades, an ammunition plant produced weapons for the US Army at the site, now called Camp Minden. Rounds from the plant were used in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and the plant continued production until the early 1990s, a few years after cleanup at the site became a federal priority because the groundwater had been contaminated with explosive chemical liquids. During the 1960s, three separate explosions at the plant killed 10 people and injured more than a dozen others.
The state of Louisiana took over the property in 2005 and leased its facilities to private companies like Explo, which produce, store and demilitarize munitions. In the past decade, several explosions have occurred at facilities operated by Explo and Goex, a company that manufactures black powder at Camp Minden. Explosions at the Goex plant have injured several workers, and two explosions at Explo storage bunkers broke windows and prompted evacuations of nearby homes.
After police discovered the improperly stored M-6 in 2012, Explo was ordered to temporarily store the explosives in bunkers that continue to deteriorate and are overgrown with vegetation, according to EPA documents. The school at Camp Minden and 400 homes in the neighboring town of Doyline (known for serving as the set for the TV series "True Blood") were evacuated during operating hours for nearly a week as the explosives were moved. The M-6 is still in temporary storage today.
Several Explo executives and employees were indicted on criminal charges in 2013, and the company declared bankruptcy.
With Explo out of the picture, the increasingly dangerous M-6 became a political hot potato. The state did not have the money to clean it up, and the Defense Department refused requests from the National Guard for federal funding, citing budget uncertainties.
In March 2014, the EPA directed the Army to address the M-6, but the Army refused. In July, the EPA finalized its determination that the Army was legally responsible for the explosives because it failed to properly oversee Explo, which fudged permits and other information to win its contract with the military, according to EPA documents.
The EPA ordered the Army to clean up the M-6, but the army challenged the agency again, enraging Louisiana lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. In July, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, a Republican known for opposing environmental regulations, accused the Army of "dragging its feet" and threatened to block one of the Army's Senate nominees. Former Senator Mary Landrieu also put pressure on the Army to take responsibility.
The Justice Department finally intervened and brokered a deal that was finalized in October, two years after the initial explosion. The Army agreed to pay for the cleanup with money provided by the federal government, and the EPA agreed to work with state regulators to oversee the disposal. The agency soon determined that the M-6 would be openly burned on site.
Hazardous Military Waste Is a Nationwide Problem
Laura Olah became an environmental advocate in the early 1990s when a plume of pollution from a retired Army ammunition plant contaminated her groundwater near her home in Merrimac, Wisconsin. Soon she was embroiled in a fight over a proposed open burn at the plant, and after seven years of what she calls "community resistance," the plan was finally scrapped.
Now, Olah keeps an eye on munitions dumps across the country and is currently rallying support for the open burn opponents in northwest Louisiana.
"This isn't a local issue, its not a Louisiana issue, it’s a national issue," Olah said. "This stuff should not just be dumped on one community. It's completely unacceptable."
Olah said open burning is the worst solution to this problem because, by definition, there are no emission controls and toxic pollutants freely enter the open air.
Nationally, the Department of Defense manages $70 billion worth of conventional munitions at Army depots across the country, according to the Government Accountability Office. The military has conducted remediation efforts at munitions depots and retired ammunition plants for years, and advocates say that concerns for human health have forced the military to develop alternatives to open burning.
"The destruction of conventional munitions is a large, continuing task," said Lenny Siegel, executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, a group that specializes in contaminated areas owned by the government. "Under pressure from regulators to abandon routine open burning and detonation, the Defense Department has developed a range of suitable alternatives."
Siegel said that huge quantities of munitions are produced during times of war, and it's always more expensive to properly dispose of munitions than create them. Open burning, he said, is outdated and environmentally damaging, but it's cheap, and cost is sometimes the government's chief concern.
Siegel and Olah agree that if the M-6 at Camp Minden can be safely moved to an open burning area, then it can be safely transported to an alternative treatment facility just as easily.
EPA officials have claimed that the decision to use open burn trays is more about time than money, but the agency's own memos on the disposal state that "the cost for off-site disposal greatly exceeds the cost of on-site action and is cost prohibitive due to the large volume of material requiring disposal."
Facing the Unknown
On Tuesday, EPA officials held a closed-door meeting with lawmakers and environmental advocates who have been publically demanding the EPA use a different disposal method or provide proof that the open burn at Camp Minden would not make people sick.
Brian Salvatore, who presented his research on the potential health impacts of openly burning the explosives at the meeting, said it was "amazing" how badly the meeting went.
With support from Minden Mayor Tommy Davis and a growing number of residents, Gene Reynolds, the state representative from Minden, pushed the EPA to build an enclosed incinerator at Camp Minden, but EPA officials did not back down, according to sources who attended the meeting.
Instead, the EPA said it is planning another test burn, but only after bidding out the entire project to a private contractor.
"Now, does this make any sense at all?" Salvatore wrote in a Facebook post. "If the test burn is supposed to tell us if the open burn is even safe, why would they bid out a contract that mandates an open burn before doing all of the necessary safety tests first?"
In a statement, the EPA said that a date for the test burn has not been set. The agency is finalizing "quality assurance" and "air monitoring" plans for the test burn. The results of the test burn will be publically available.
"Talk about putting the cart before the horse . . . the EPA's cart is not only ahead of the horse; it's over the cliff!" Salvatore wrote.
Meanwhile, the residents of Doyline and Minden remain anxious about the ticking time bomb down the road and the controversial plan to burn in it in the open air.
"People are very nervous," Melissa Downer said. "It’s the unexpected, it’s the unknown."