HERLONG, Calif. - For 40 years in this remote high desert, the Sierra Army Depot's open-air munitions disposal operations have rattled windows, shaken the earth, and sent smoke plumes riding away on Washoe zephyrs. Each year, the base burns and blasts between 5 and 10 million pounds of obsolete bombs and rocket motors - a volume no other military installation can match (HCN, 5/8/00: The burning season begins again).

The long-running controversy over the disposal operations has polarized this remote California community into two frequently vitriolic camps: those who defend the Army and the jobs it creates, and those who say the depot is harming the environment and human health. At public meetings, depot employees clad in union T-shirts crowd the room, while local environmental activists present ream after ream of technical data on cancer clusters and munitions-disposal technology.

On the surface, it still looks like business as usual in this rural Army outpost. But last spring, citizens' groups and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe filed a lawsuit against the depot in federal court. Since then, local and national pressure has increased; criticism from government regulators, area physicians, and even top Army brass has the depot scrambling to clean up its act.

"Putting a bomb in a pit and lighting it on fire is caveman technology," says Jack Pastor of Residents Against Munitions, one of the plaintiffs in the ongoing lawsuit. "We're not going to take it any longer."

A PR nightmare

Opponents gained some ground this spring when the depot suffered two public-relations disasters. First, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its annual Toxics Release Inventory, a nationwide accounting of toxic emissions and their sources. Although a 1993 executive order required all federal agencies to provide data for the inventory, the U.S. military maintained a written policy that it would provide no information on munitions disposal activities until 1999. The Sierra Army Depot reported that it released 5.4 million pounds of metals and toxic gases into the air in 1999, making it California's top air polluter in this year's inventory.

"That report certainly opened my eyes," says local forester Phil Nemir, echoing the sentiments of many county residents.

Depot officials disputed this ranking, and are in the process of revising their 1999 release data to exclude scrap metal recycling from the depot's operations.

The EPA believes Sierra's release data was over-reported. "The information ... is grossly incorrect," explains Adam Browning, EPA Region 9 TRI coordinator. "Basically, they totaled the weight of all the metals in all of the bombs they exploded and reported it as being released into the air."

Despite EPA's statement, many depot supporters feel the base's business has suffered from the press coverage the initial release data received. "The damage is already done," explains Robert Getty Jr., whose wife works at the depot. "No one reads a correction with as much interest as a controversial front-page story."

Another recent blow to the depot's operations came from area physicians, who published an "Open Letter to Lassen County Residents" in the local newspaper. Twelve physicians urged "Sierra Army Depot to halt all open burn/open detonation of munitions, and to store existing munitions until new technologies can be brought on line."

Jim Swistowicz, Sierra Army Depot union president, publicly chided the doctors for "knowingly and willfully abandon(ing) the scientific method of investigation to form a conclusion. Sierra Army Depot has documentation to show what we are doing is done in compliance with regulatory conditions established by California and the federal EPA."

The physicians dispute that. "Our position is consistent with the stance physicians have taken on pollution since the days of Upton Sinclair and the slaughterhouses," says Dr. John Dozier. "I don't see it as any different here. The toxic effects of environmental pollution are not immediate. Until we know for sure it isn't harmful, they shouldn't do it."

The three R's

Things got even tougher for the depot in May, when the Lassen County Air Pollution Control Board added two stringent conditions to a permit it issues for depot operations. One condition requires the depot to cease operations when the county designates an air-quality alert. Air Pollution Control Officer Ken Smith determines alerts using various information sources, from state air advisories to local weather conditions.

Last year, the depot used its own weather data to determine if the conditions were right for burning and detonation. "In a year-and-a-half period, 44 percent of the time, the (state) said it was a no-burn day and the depot said it was a burn day," Smith says. Depot officials have hinted they will comply with the new requirement.

The second condition is more controversial. The new Lassen County code requires that alternatives to open-air burning and detonation be used if the technology is available. But there is no consensus on which alternative technologies, called R3 - resource recovery and recycling - are workable and affordable for the Sierra Army Depot.

Technologies under consideration for the depot are cryofracture, where bombs are dipped in liquid nitrogen and then cracked into pieces; robotic disassembly; and a novel way of converting explosives into fertilizer using anaerobic bacteria found in termites.

Sierra Army Depot munitions destroyer Dan Galbreath says only the depot's current techniques can handle cluster bombs, which the depot destroys in significant quantities. Jim Wheeler, director of the Army's Defense Ammunition Center, the military's weapons research and development wing, concurs. "There are some weapons that are just too dangerous to dispose of any other way," he says.

But depot critics say some of the new technologies are appropriate for cluster bombs, and even Wheeler says they should be used for other types of munitions. "We're planning on installing some R3 technology at Sierra very soon," he says.

Depot Commander Moses Whitehurst echoes Wheeler's promise. "I want you to quote me on this," he says. "R3 will be installed at Sierra Army Depot by the end of the next fiscal year."

But just how much resource recovery and recycling technology will come to Sierra is also a matter of debate. With a meager $36 million annual budget, the national Defense Ammunition Center already has allocated most of its resources to other military installations.

Until the Army supports its verbal commitment to R3 at Sierra with real changes, locals calling for a halt to open-pit burning and detonation doubt the depot's promises. Activist Jack Pastor, the depot's most vocal critic, remains skeptical. "I believe they're going to bring the community a token amount of R3 to pacify the activists in the area, but nothing significant to handle 220,000 pounds of munitions per day, which their present permit allows. I just think it's another sham in a long line of shams."

Crystal Mustric writes from Janesville, California.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Sierra Army Depot, Public Affairs Office, 530/827-4343;
  • Adam Browning, EPA Region 9 TRI regional coordinator, 425/744-1121;
  • Ken Smith, Lassen County Air Pollution Control Officer, 530/251-8110.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Crystal Mustric