An explosion rips the afternoon calm and from a barren hillside flames shoot 50 feet into the air. A shimmering cloud lofts to 10,000 feet and drifts east over the western edge of the Great Basin. Minutes later the blast repeats - 13 times.
This is an everyday event at the Sierra
Army Depot in rural northeastern California, but a neighboring
county in Nevada is getting fed up.
officials in Washoe County are preparing to sue to stop the
explosions at the Army base, 55 miles northwest of Reno and five
miles over the state line.
Commissioner Joanne Bond says she fears potential contamination
sweeping across the border. The smoke could carry barium,
fiberglass, lead, antimony and mercury, according to Nevada health
officials. Health effects include diarrhea, respiratory problems,
chronic poisoning and palsy.
In California, the
Lassen County Board of Supervisors is gearing up to defend the Army
depot. It is the county's largest employer, providing 10 percent of
its jobs and $36 million in payroll.
controversial blasts are one of the primary functions of the depot,
until 1993 the Army's largest West Coast storehouse of nuclear
weapons. These days the base uses open-air burning and detonation
to destroy thousands of outdated munitions. Minuteman, Peacekeeper,
Poseidon and Polaris rockets along with countless rounds of
conventional ammunition have gone up in smoke at Sierra, their
unstable explosives vaporized into the high-desert air. In 1995,
Sierra rid the nation's armed services of around 56 million pounds
of outdated munitions and 200 spent rocket
After 30 years of operating on an interim
permit, Army officials have applied for a permanent permit from the
California Department of Toxic Substances Control Board. But while
Lassen officials support the state permit process, their
counterparts in Washoe County say it's
"We don't know what's in that smoke but
it blows all over my district and my constituents," said Washoe
commissioner Bond. "We just want to be part of the environmental
Although it is being conducted under
California guidelines, Army officials insist the study will address
environmental and public-health issues in both California and
Nevada. Recently, under pressure from Nevada, the Army agreed to
conduct a parallel environmental study done under federal
"We don't believe (Nevada) should
have any health concerns, but we want to go beyond the letter of
the law to alleviate them," said Dan Culver, a Sierra Army Depot
Bond and other Nevada officials remain
skeptical. They fear the Army will base its study on results in
California, which they say won't adequately scrutinize
environmental impacts across the state line.
think they're just going through the motions," said Bond. "There's
very little trust and very little information from the Army."
The Washoe District Health Board has hired an
attorney to press for a full environmental study and they've also
asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that
the permit process includes Nevada's concerns.
California, Lassen County officials say their Nevada counterparts
are overreacting. "Facts have taken a back seat to hysteria," said
Lassen County Supervisor Lyle Lough.
largest of the four remaining military sites where ammunition is
destroyed, uses open burning because it is cost-effective, said Dan
Galbreath, base demolition chief. Operations are done above ground,
allowing Sierra to destroy more material than other depots and for
around one-third the cost, he said.
over Sierra's munitions disposals reflects a growing concern for
public health and the environment, said Grace Bukowski, a
representative of the Reno-based Rural Alliance for Military
Accountability. "Cheap and easy" are no longer acceptable
justifications from anyone, even the Army, she
"It's time for the Army to look at newer
technology. Citizens are no longer going to accept toxic and
hazardous material in the air without questions," Bukowski
For more information, contact the Washoe
County Board of Commissioners, P.O. Box 11130, Reno, NV 89520-0027
(702/328-6169); the Lassen County Board of Supervisors, 707 Nevada
St., Susanville, CA 96130 (916/251-8333); or Sierra Army Depot,
Herlong, CA 96113 (916/827-4343).
* Jane Braxton
J.B. Little is a
freelance writer in Plumas County, Calif., which is upwind of the