By Chris Butler | Louisiana Watchdog
The Environmental Protection Agency has a plan in rural Webster Parish to burn 15 million pounds of propellant explosives, originally designed for military use, into the northern Louisiana atmosphere.
People exposed to it might develop cancer or blood pressure problems or even pass on birth defects to their children, experts warn.
Parish residents fear these toxins, which could rise two miles into the atmosphere depending on weather conditions, might eventually cover their entire corner of the state or spread into Texas or Arkansas.
Puzzlingly enough, officials with the Environmental Protection Agency, who otherwise won’t hesitate to force landowners to go through long, costly environmental impact statements, aren’t doing the same here.
Maybe it’s because this is one of the EPA’s own special projects.
Frances Kelley lives in nearby Caddo Parish, but these developments have alarmed her as much as they would if she lived in Webster.
Kelley told Louisiana Watchdog she’s always involved herself in environmental causes, but this occasion differs from the others.
“There have been people such as myself who completely trusted the EPA, but this has completely undermined our trust,” Kelley said.
“Normally, when you have this widespread community concern about mothers scared about exposing their kids to things that can cause cancer or birth defects, this is when we expect in a democracy that our elected officials will do the right thing to protect us.”
Webster Parish resident Melissa Downer said the EPA has little to no regard for her safety.
“They think we’re just a little small area of some farmers or what not that aren’t even going to pay attention and notice and we can just get rid of this and burn it before they catch wind of it,” Downer said.
Their fears about what might happen aren’t unfounded, said environmental toxicologist Bob Flournoy.
Flournoy, who taught at Lousiana Tech University, believes EPA officials would never do this in a more metropolitan area or one with people of high political clout.
“If they like it so much, why don’t they just burn it in Dallas or somewhere else and see what kind of flack they get?” Flournoy asked.
All of this came about when a storage bunker containing explosives at Camp Minden, a training site for the Louisiana National Guard, exploded in 2012. The explosion, according to an EPA press release, shattered windows in the city of Minden, four miles away, and generated a 7,000-foot mushroom cloud.
Explo Systems, responsible for maintaining the explosives, was under contract with the U.S. Army to demilitarize surplus munitions, the EPA said. The company has since gone bankrupt, according to the press release.
The Louisiana Military Department soon assumed ownership of the remaining 18 million pounds of explosives at the site. EPA officials then initiated negotiations late last year to dispose of them.
Officials with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality agreed to the EPA’s plan to complete an open burn of those explosives, and the EPA will oversee the work.
EPA spokesman Joe Hubbard wouldn’t answer Louisiana Watchdog’s questions Tuesday about the potential environmental hazards, the lack of an environmental impact statement or whether they would do something similar in a more metropolitan area.
Hubbard said in a statement, though, that agency officials plan to do a trial burn at an unscheduled date.
Hubbard also said there is an urgent need to dispose of the explosives.
“The Army Explosives Safety Board has advised that deterioration of the propellants could greatly increase the risk of explosion by August 2015,” Hubbard said.
EPA officials, he added, will constantly test the air, water and soil nearby to minimize any environmental impacts and protect human health.
Flournoy, though, said safe alternatives exist and that private companies, tasked with a similar project, would pursue them instead.
“They haven’t shown proof that what they’re doing is a safe process,” Flournoy said.
“I have never before seen this level of community concern before,” Kelley said. “I’ve never seen a movement grow so fast.”
Contact Christopher Butler at [email protected]
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