Fifteen million pounds of toxic explosives are sitting in Louisiana bunkers right now. And nobody can agree on how to handle them.
The explosives are at Camp Minden, a Louisiana National Guard training site roughly 40 miles from the Texas and Arkansas borders. In November, the EPA informed locals that the agency and the U.S. Army would fund a $28.5 million cleanup of the explosives, in the form of an open-air burn.
What happens here will set the standard for future toxic disposals, which happen around the country.
The situation has Chemistry Professor Brian Salvatore on edge. He teaches at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, a city of 200,000 people about 30 miles from the burn site. He’s become a sort of “Little Dutch Boy” from fairy tale, warning people of the torrent that may come if the EPA moves forward with its plan.
A Quick Chemistry Lesson
The explosive in question is M6 propellant, which is used to launch artillery shells.
“I looked up M6, what’s in it, and right away a lot of bells went off in my mind because I know how careful we are when we work with anything aromatic in our laboratory,” Salvatore said.
He explained that M6 contains key toxic substances: dinitrotoluene (DNT) and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). Scientists recognize DNT as a carcinogen, causing liver and kidney disease in mice. It’s toxic if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin.
Of the other substance, DBP, Salvatore said, “It can lead to endocrine problems and diabetes.”
Some nail polishes used to contain DBP until the European Union banned it in 2006. Scientists labeled the chemical a powerful endocrine disrupter, leading to reproductive problems in adults and developmental abnormalities in babies — particularly abnormal development of male genitalia.
Salvatore’s warnings have led state officials—including U.S. Rep. John Fleming, R-Shreveport; U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R; and State Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Minden—to work across party lines, writing letters and scheduling meetings with the EPA. Their fear: Because the chemicals that comprise M6 are known to cause cancer and birth defects, releasing them into the open air could lead to those disorders in residents.
“I’ve learned that if you make a knee-jerk decision, it’s usually wrong. You have to weigh all the possibilities, and I don’t think we’ve done that yet,” said State Rep. Reynolds.
Reynolds added, “I’ve been trying to get some hard data from the EPA, other than them telling us everything is all right. It just hasn’t happened. Until somebody can prove to me that this is not a bad idea, I think it’s a bad idea.”
Meanwhile, as the M6 propellant deteriorates, it becomes increasingly unstable. That means it could explode on its own — as a bunker’s worth did in 2012.
An Explosive History in Louisiana
That powerful explosion created a 7,000-foot mushroom cloud, rattled homes, and shattered windows 4 miles away.
Evan McCommon, who runs an organic farm near Camp Minden, said he has been following the situation on local news. “I was here at the farm when they had the first explosion. I started paying attention then.”
While the potential for a repeat explosion is frightening, residents fear that an open burn isn’t the best option, either.
The EPA plans to begin the open burn this spring, and it could potentially affect a 50- to 100-mile radius, Salvatore said. “If (the substances) attach to dust particles, they could travel for miles — however far the wind will take them. But the reason some of (these substances) are really bad is because they never go away.” They never break down in the environment.
This problem could stretch well into the future, and it began years ago. Camp Minden was an ammunition plant in the 1940s, and M6 was stored there. The U.S. Army eventually contracted with a private company, Explo Systems, Inc., to demilitarize and sell off the M6.
But Explo never did that. Instead, the company improperly stored millions of pounds of the explosive. The site went unchecked by the Army until 2012, when one of the storage bunkers blew.
The Louisiana State Police stepped in, and within months, Explo employees were indicted for unlawful and reckless storage of explosives and failure to keep accurate inventory.
Next, the EPA intervened, going back and forth with the Army and the state of Louisiana over who should dispose of the M6. With superfund approval, the EPA took over.
Local contractor Madden proposed a closed incinerator disposal method for a fraction of the open burn cost ($18.7 million compared to $25 million). Because the incinerator method is a contained process, it would control emissions and have a lesser impact on local residents.
But the EPA turned Madden down.
According to the Shreveport Times, “the EPA only uses two approved disposal methods: open pit burn by special permit or an EPA-approved incinerator, of which there are only two in the U.S. Only the EPA can grant an exception.”
McCommon said if the open burn happens, he hopes the prevailing wind blows the other way. “I can’t cover 300 acres with plastic. Common sense tells you that if this turns out to be a bad idea, you can’t reverse it. I’d rather err on the side of conservation,” he said. “Just don’t burn it here.”
Kelly McMullan is less worried. He runs the Bayou Bird Farm, where he keeps 35 different species of pheasants, many of them endangered, “about 10 miles as the crow flies” from Camp Minden.
“I don’t like the situation at all, but I don’t think [the open burn] would affect anything,” McMullan said. “Now, if I lived closer, I would be extremely concerned. But I’m not really close-close.”
Other local residents are anxious. They’ve banded together quickly to get the word out — signing petitions, calling government officials, and forming a Facebook group of 9,000 members.
“It’s not surprising that people’s concern is spreading so quickly. They’re fighting to protect their children and grandchildren,” said Frances Kelley, a community organizer with Louisiana Progress Action.
One of the group’s biggest wins so far was making contact with famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich.
“That she took the time to respond shows that this is a very important issue,” Kelley said.
As news of the situation spreads, additional chemistry and munitions experts are also stepping forward to speak against M6. Among them is Robert Flournoy, an environmental toxicologist and former professor at Louisiana Tech University.
“I have over 42 years of environmental experience and can say without a doubt the open-tray method is not safe. The EPA has produced no data to the safety of such a burn and repeatedly ignores requests for such data from media, citizens, state officials and environmental professionals,” Flournoy wrote in a letter to the Shreveport Times.
Earlier this month, the EPA issued a statement that they will conduct another trial burn and that the data “will be made available to the public prior to the full-scale removal.”
Salvatore and others remain hopeful but aren’t convinced of a victory yet. If the burn goes through, he said, “I’d tell people, if you really care about yourself, get out of here. I’m not saying you have to leave Louisiana, but get away from here.”
But for now, he’s staying to fight, along with his wife and 13-year-old daughter, who wants to be an environmental lawyer when she grows up.