Nevada county to Army: Take this smog and shove it

  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.


Local 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.


Washoe County 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.


The 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 These days the base uses open-air burning and detonation to destroy thousands of outdated munitions.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 In 1995, Sierra rid the nation's armed services of around 56 million pounds of outdated munitions and 200 spent rocket motors.


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 flawed.


"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 study."


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 guidelines.


"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 attorney.


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.


"I 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.


In California, Lassen County officials say their Nevada counterparts are overreacting. "Facts have taken a back seat to hysteria," said Lassen County Supervisor Lyle Lough.


Sierra, the 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.


Controversy 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 said.


"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 said.


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 Little





J.B. Little is a freelance writer in Plumas County, Calif., which is upwind of the Sierra Army Depot.