The Military Is Burning Awful Explosive Stuff Out in the Open

In early 2015, I received a call from Mark Toohey, Juvenile Judge in Kingsport, Tennessee. He had just read my book, "Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA." He thanked me for exposing the corruption within the EPA, the chemical-agribusiness industries, and the country's political class.

Toohey then told me his story and forwarded to me emails and other documents that summarize the human drama of irresponsible policies, this time from the US Army. Reading these documents revived temporarily the anguish I lived through at EPA.

It does not look like American corporate, military and political leaders want to learn from past mistakes. History is bunk. They keep manufacturing doubt about science, dismissing evidence, often willing to give diseases and death for getting their way or becoming rich.

Judge Toohey did not tell me these things. He did not have to. His anger was palpable. He said he lives near the Holston Army Ammunitions Plant, which is also in Kingsport, Tennessee. This is a US Army base loaded with explosives, some of which have to be destroyed less they explode.

The Army outsourced this dangerous task to BAE Systems Ordnance Systems, an American subsidiary of a global defense, security, and aerospace corporation headquartered in the UK. In 2010, the US Justice Department fined the mother company, BAE Systems, $ 400 million for "knowingly and willfully making false statements to U.S. government agencies." The Justice Department described this fine as a "criminal fine."

Apparently, the criminal behavior of BAE Systems did not bother the US Army that hired its American subsidiary to manage its endless supply of explosives. Perhaps the Army found confidence and trust in the CEO of its contractor, BAE Ordnance. This executive was none other than Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration. Chertoff and the Army convinced each other the cheapest way to get rid of explosives was to burn them out in the open.

But burning explosives in large pits in the ground with gigantic fires lasting for days is burning large amounts of extremely dangerous chemicals certain to poison the air, water and land. Not only that, but also BAE and the Army denied there were alternatives to open burning of dangerous chemical explosives.

Judge Toohey educated himself in the chemistry and pollution of burning chemicals out in the air. He found a sympathetic advisor and supporter in Brian Salvatore, professor of chemistry at Louisiana State University.

Judge Toohey could see the black plumes rising from the military arsenal and expanding over Kingsport neighborhoods. He smelled the bad stuff. He experienced these and other effects of poisoned air for five years. He did all he could to bring such hazardous practice to an end, but nothing worked. The EPA kept aloof and the Tennessee bureaucrats did not exist.

The chief reason for the deafening silence around Judge Toohey was the almighty dollar. His community, Kingsport, TN, depends on chemicals. Eastman Chemicals, for example, was founded in Kingsport in 1920. It probably now employs several thousand workers. In a chemical company town like Kingsport, Toohey could not be too loud lest he was branded an enemy of the economy.

On February 8, 2015, Judge Toohey wrote to professor Salvatore about the "pervasiveness" of "open burning." He thought we could have solved such a problem long time ago. He blamed "money, laziness, stubbornness and politics" for getting in the way. He wondered why national media had ignored the burning of explosives so close to people. He said:

"I had no idea of the numbers of asthmatics, children and families across the U.S. who have had to endure life threatening exposure to open burning by our own military, with the full blessing of the EPA. It is simply a sad state of affairs when we, as a nation, place cost savings above the health of our citizens."

A few days later, February 12, 2015, Judge Toohey sent another email, this time to several people, including the governor of Tennessee Bill Haslam, professor Brian Salvatore, officers of BAE and the military base, journalists of the New York Times, Senator Lamar Alexander and an EPA scientist, Kenneth Shuster:

"I just wanted to make everyone aware that BAE / HAAP [Holston Army Ammunition Plant] is open burning again on a day where all of the toxic smoke is being blown all over the Ridgefields and Rothenwood Estates communities in Kingsport TN. They don't even attempt to warn these communities about what they are being exposed to. I hope the Kingsport community will come together and stop this outrageous activity. Too bad for children, asthmatics and elderly folks.... Contrary to what the military says, the chemicals in this smoke are toxic, and unsafe," he wrote.

Judge Toohey learned that one of the chemicals burned out in the open was RDX or, in the military's coded vocabulary, Research Department Explosive. He immediately informed professor Salvatore about RDX. On May 5, 2015, Salvatore emailed Judge Toohey: "This is terrible neurotoxicity. RDX is awful stuff."

Tennessee Clean Water Network, a non-profit organization, described RDX as "a synthetic pollutant and possible human carcinogen." In November 2014, they filed a citizen's lawsuit against the Department of Defense and BAE Systems Ordnance Systems. The Network argued that the military and BAE polluted the Holston River with hazardous chemicals, including RDX. Its lawsuit was a result of the defendants' "chronic, egregious, and ongoing violations of the CWA [Clean Water Act]."

So Judge Toohey is not alone in his fight for a livable environment and for the supreme value of public and environmental health. The US Army is wrong to act like any other polluter. It should not treat the US as another battlefield.