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Radford arsenal's burn permit to be subject of public hearing

Radford arsenal's burn permit to be subject of public hearing

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Explosive waste is burned openly at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant. An EPA official took this photo of the burning in 2011.

The allowed amount of hazardous waste that’s incinerated in an open burning ground at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant would be cut in half by a new permit under consideration by environmental regulators.

A public hearing on the permit will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

For years, the open-air burning of explosive materials along the banks of the New River, which loops around the massive munitions plant, has fueled concerns that the practice might release toxins into the surrounding soil, water and air.

By reducing the tonnage of propellants that can be incinerated, and the number of days the burns are permitted, the new permit aims to mitigate the risks of cancer and lead exposure, according to Ashby Scott, a hazardous waste permit writer for DEQ.

New limits set by the permit were based on a public health risk assessment that assumed a worst-case scenario for the operation, which in fact is already used far less than what the current rules allow.

The plant “recognizes the importance of this project” and is working to reduce its open burning, said Claire Powell, a spokeswoman for BAE Systems, the private company that operates what is generally known as the Radford arsenal.

A new indoor incinerator that will reduce open burning by 95% is in the works, Powell said. Construction is set to begin next year.

Waste and byproducts from the plant, which manufactures nearly all of the propellants used in ammunition for the U.S. Army, are too volatile to be dumped in a hazardous materials landfill. In some cases, floor sweepings can contain tiny bits of metal, which could cause a spark or explosion inside a traditional incinerator.

Outdoor burning of those materials is governed by a DEQ permit that expired in 2015 but remains in effect until a new one is approved.

The current permit allows the arsenal to burn up to 8,000 pounds per day of propellant waste — referred to as dry burns because the material needs no accelerants to catch fire — every day of the year.

Under the new permit, dry burns would be limited to 5,600 pounds per day, for no more than 183 days a year. So-called wet burns, which require diesel fuel and kindling such as cardboard, would be allowed to remain at the current maximum: 2,000 pounds a day for 365 days a year.

Dry burns, which account for most of the activity at the burning grounds, would be restricted to just over 1 million pounds of propellants per year, a 51% reduction from the current figure.

The weight limits set by the existing permit have not been met in recent years, Powell said, noting that in 2020 the arsenal treated just 5% of what was allowed.

The fires produce what DEQ calls “constituents of concern”: perchlorate, chlorate, chlorite, chloride, carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, methylene chloride, chloromethane and methane.

However, data collected by independent parties suggests that actual exposures are “significantly less” than models that were used in the public health risk assessment, DEQ said at an informational meeting on the permit last week.

The arsenal, which is about 5 miles north of Radford, is close to numerous homes, an elementary school and a farm used to grow produce for Virginia Tech students.

According to Powell, the amount of waste treated at the arsenal has been reduced by about half from 2017 to 2020 as part of an environmental stewardship challenge issued by the commander.

Following the virtual public hearing Wednesday, DEQ will continue to take written comments though May 24. A decision on the permit will then be made within 30 days.

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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