Kingsport, TN (WJHL) – In an industry town like Kingsport, Tennessee, plumes of smoke aren’t uncommon.
Even from behind the guarded gates of Holston Army Ammunition on Kingsport’s west side, they’re to be expected at a place that’s made explosives for the United States military since 1942.
But in recent years, some of those smoke plumes lifting from HAAP have prompted questions and concerns from some who live near the plant and from environmental activists in other parts of the country.
That’s because the smoke is coming from the open burning of explosives and explosives contaminated trash in an area near the Holston River, and the Army confirms it’s happening at Holston Army Ammunition in Kingsport as frequently as twice a week.
Outside the gates of the 6,000 acre high-security facility, open burning of anything considered to be trash or waste is strictly forbidden. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation says open burning of anything other than natural products found on your property is “harmful to the air we breathe and unhealthy for our neighbors – near and far.”
But inside Holston Army Ammunition plant and other munitions facilities across the country, open burning of explosives and munitions and explosives contaminated waste is legal because, according to the United States Army, there is no other safe alternative for their disposal.
EPA AP-42 section 2.3 Open Burning: “Current regulations prohibit open burning of hazardous waste. One exception is for open burning and detonation of explosives, particularly waste explosives that have the potential to detonate which cannot safely be disposed of through other modes of treatment.”
“In 2001, the Air Pollution Control Board added exemptions to Tennessee’s open burning regulations that allowed for the combustion of explosive waste and explosive contaminated materials when no other safe means of disposal exists,” said Eric Ward, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokesman.
An Army spokesperson said Holston Army Ammunition employees burn what are called off-specification or waste explosives in open air pans as often as twice a week. About once a month, they burn waste contaminated or possibly contaminated with explosives in cages. And about twice a year, employees burn piles of things like work safety suits, plastics, construction waste like wood and pipes, all of which are contaminated or possibly contaminated with explosives.
The Army says Holston employees conduct burns when weather conditions are favorable for air dispersion, scheduling them two days in advance and notifying TDEC when burns are set to occur.
“Safety is Holston AAP’s most important priority,” said Justine Barati, Director of Public and Congressional Affairs, Joint Munitions Command. “Open burning is the safest method to dispose of off-specification explosives or decontaminate materials from explosives prior to disposal.”
Barati said all burns are conducted in accordance with permits granted by the State of Tennessee, but records reveal sometimes the rules get broken.
One happened on February 17, 2017 when TDEC says HAAP burned explosive waste outside the time allowed in the permit.
The other happened July 3, 2012. That day, a TDEC inspection of logs revealed employees burned 3,346 pounds of an explosive called tramino-trinitro-benzene in one day. Holston Army Ammunition’s permit allows for 36 pounds to be burned in one month
Records also reveal after an inspection in August 2015, the EPA determined Holston Army Ammunition was possibly burning an unknown amount of PCB’s in pile burns on the property. PCB’s are banned chemicals that are a known carcinogen and prohibited from burning even at places like HAAP.
Plant officials later said they didn’t believe PCB’s were burned at the facility.
“The open air burning of hazardous wastes at Holston that had the potential to contain PCB’s has been regularly occurring for years, if not decades – it was an ongoing persistent activity until CSWAB submitted a letter of complaint,” said Laura Olah, Executive Director of CSWAB, an environmental activist organization heading a campaign called CEASE Fire which is pushing the government to stop open burning of military munitions. “Open air burning of PCBs would have certainly released unsafe levels of dioxins and other toxic substances to the environment, placing the health of workers, onsite personnel and nearby residents at risk for exposure and illness.”
“We know that they have burned things they should not have burned,” said Jane Williams, Executive Director of California Communities Against Toxics and the CEASE Fire campaign. “When you open burn material, it goes in the air and it gets in the soil and it goes in the water,” she said. “We just know there are better ways and we’re here to help find those better ways.”
Activists aren’t the only ones concerned about open burning at HAAP and military facilities across the country. Last year, American Chemical Society Executive Director and CEO Dr. Thomas Connelly, Jr. wrote a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter about the continued open burning of munitions and toxic chemicals saying “it seems outdated to have open burning remaining as an acceptable method of disposal for munitions and chemicals.” That letter specifically mentioned Holston Army Ammunition Plant in Kingsport.
While the Army says there’s no other safe way to get rid of that explosive connected waste at Holston Army Ammunition Plant, it appears open to studying potential alternatives. In late September, BAE Systems’ Ordnance Systems Inc. was awarded a $1.17 million technology review contract to study possible alternatives to open burning at HAAP. The project is expected to be complete in 2019.
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