Open burning of explosives at the Clean Harbors facility outside the town of Colfax in Grant Parish, as seen in an undated photograph. The state Department of Environmental Quality recently said it plans to deny the company’s hazardous waste permit without more analysis of alternative technologies that don’t involve open burning. A Massachusetts based company, Clean Harbors has its regional operations off Scenic Highway in Baton Rouge.
Photo provided by the Louisiana Environmental Action Network

Want to blow up something, go to central Louisiana by the end of the year.

A central Louisiana complex that has burned or detonated mines, rocket fuel, TNT and other explosive and hazardous materials for nearly 40 years must end the practice permanently by the end of the year, state regulators said. After years of review and public and local government opposition to open burning at the Clean Harbors facility in Colfax, the state Department of Environmental Quality issued a new permit that will end the practice no later than six months from the end of June, regulators said. The decision, which was issued June 29 in the renewal of a hazardous waste permit, halts the last commercial facility in the United States from continuing to open burn or detonate explosive and reactive materials. Several military facilities still open burn, however.

The site is well away from people.

The Clean Harbors burn complex sits on 43 acres surrounded by hundreds more acres of company land in Grant Parish and has used a series of burn pads to destroy various hazardous and reactive wastes since 1985. The burned materials have included propellant for car air bags, solid rocket fuel, Claymore mines, 20 mm and 40 mm artillery shells, TNT, black powder and fireworks, permit records say. The materials have come from the U.S. Department of Defense, defense contractors, Disney and others. Colfax-area residents have complained for years about earth-shaking noises from the complex in the rural stretch of Louisiana and the health problems they contend stem from the plumes of black smoke rising from the facility’s burn pads. Some of the munitions are known to release toxic heavy metals, dioxins and other harmful pollutants when they are burned or destroyed, researchers say. In late 2014 and 2015, the facility received the residue of a massive munitions bunker explosion about two years earlier at the Louisiana Army National Guard’s Camp Minden. The company was burning off the trace explosives left on the debris.

Loud explosions and the land shakes. We had that from Quantico when we were in Virginia.

Among the complaints, residents in the primarily minority community known as “The Rock” began to hear loud explosions that shook homes after the Camp Minden residue came to the complex, residents have said. To continue operating in the future, DEQ officials ordered, Clean Harbors can use only an enclosed process, known as a “closed burn chamber system,” to destroy the hazardous wastes and to control the pollutants released by the burning. The volume processed by the complex has increased through years to the current level of up to 561,700 pounds per year. The new permit would continue to allow that maximum level. The company also can continue receiving and holding up to 50,000 pounds of waste inside 10 magazines, plus up to another 60 cubic yards in another storage area, before destruction, the permit says. DEQ says Clean Harbors’ proposed state-of-the-art technology would significantly reduce air pollution through filters to capture tiny particulates and other emissions controls.

As usual, there were mixed feelings.

News of DEQ’s decision sparked a mixed reaction from some residents who say they would have wanted the burning to stop immediately. “But, you know, we know how things work, so if open burning ends after six months, that’s good news,” said Cephas Bowie Jr., a 70-year-old Colfax-area farmer and Grant Parish police juror who has opposed continued open burning. The police jury, which is a parish council, has formally opposed open burning. Colfax officials have as well in the past. Bowie lives about 10 miles south of Clean Harbors but farms only a few miles away. He said he can see Clean Harbor’s plumes of smoke and has been regularly exposed to emissions while in the fields.

Studies have verified anecdotal re[ports of emissions.

A published study conducted by LSU, Tulane, North Carolina State University researchers and those with two environmental groups concluded last year that residents’ reported health concerns matched anecdotally with air modeling of emissions from the facility’s reported burning in 2020. Among the persistent health concerns were respiratory issues, skin irritation and thyroid problems, all known to be triggered by chemicals burned in the explosives, the researchers found. The area does not have a large enough population of people to establish a statistical correlation between the emissions and the reported health effects, however. The work was funded through the Superfund Research Program under the National Institutes of Health.

The company says all is safe.

The company has contended for years that the open burning is safe. The DEQ decision comes as federal regulators prepared late last year for a rulemaking to tighten requirements on open burning and encourage closed burning after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Academies of Sciences found the technological options to avoid open burning had significantly improved. In June 2022, the EPA also issued a memo, saying facilities must use safe alternatives in lieu of open burning when those options are available. Previously the EPA had made exceptions to open burn or detonate materials that couldn’t safely be destroyed otherwise. Earlier this year, advocates for the community like Bowie had questioned how tightly earlier versions of DEQ’s proposed permit for Clean Harbors would hold the company to its closed-burn chamber system. They contended language in earlier versions of the permit left the door open for more open burning, perhaps indefinitely. Bowie, though he was happy with the apparent news, said he still wanted to review the permit for its details, but DEQ officials said the final permit definitively says open burning must end in six months. “The permit requires Clean Harbors to permanently cease operation of all Open Burn/Open Detonation activities no later than 180 days after final permit issuance,” DEQ officials said in a statement. “Following the 180-day period, no OB/OD activity can occur at the Colfax facility,” they added.

The company has still to comment as they study the document.

Jim Buckley, senior vice president for corporate communications for Clean Harbors, declined on Thursday to go into detail about the company’s view of the new permit. He said company officials are still reviewing the document. “We have to do the evaluation with respect to all legal and compliance review,” he said. The DEQ decision is a major shift for Clean Harbors, which had unsuccessfully sought to quadruple its open burning volumes in the mid-2010s and was still trying preserve some open burning in the most current plans. The company has since faced lawsuits and DEQ enforcement actions and had to grapple with shallow groundwater contamination from its past operations. Most recently, Clean Harbors had wanted to use a closed system for 90% of the waste it was destroying but also retain the option to open burn or detonate the remainder that the company had said wouldn’t be safe to do otherwise.

Will they stay in business or get an extension?

The shift to an entirely closed system that DEQ is now requiring raises questions about whether Clean Harbors will have to halt operations for some time after the final six-month open burning period ends. The company told DEQ in 2020 that it would take 1½ to three years to make its closed-burn system operational. Jennifer Richmond-Bryant, an NC State researcher who was the lead author of the open burning study around Colfax, said she hasn’t spotted any potential exceptions in the new permit that would allow continued open burning beyond six months. She called the planned change “a real positive,” though she would have liked to have had the burning end immediately also. “The open burning has been making people sick for several years now. Ever since the Camp Minden explosion, Clean Harbors has gotten so much material from them,” Richmond-Bryant said. She said she expected, based on past DEQ permit correspondence, that Clean Harbors’ new system would cut emissions.

Performance testing will prove if the limits are being met.

Under the permit, Clean Harbors will have to conduct a performance test to see if its new system will meet new air pollution limits that DEQ says will be protective of human health. The company will also have to continue ambient air and groundwater monitoring programs and create “community outreach program to engage with local communities on permitting activities, operations, and alerts; and to work with the community on significant events,” DEQ officials said.

Open air burning is bad. They had the same problem in Iraq.

Mines and rockets go boom – no more
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