The burning season begins again

Is a California army depot poisoning its neighbors?

  • Larry Beach with documents of Army Depot

    Dave B. Parker/Reno Gazette Journal
 

SUSANVILLE, Calif. - Local businessman Jack Pastor was once a big booster of the Sierra Army Depot in nearby Herlong, about 60 miles northwest of Reno, Nev. As chairman of the county's economic development committee, he fought for the depot's survival when it was nearly closed in 1993. "It meant jobs," he says.

For nearly five decades, the depot has annually burned or exploded millions of pounds of obsolete or unsafe bombs, bullets, artillery shells and rocket engines, sending smoke plumes into the air every spring, summer and fall. Army officials say the practice is safe, and Pastor believed them, even after his wife, Sally, was diagnosed with a form of lupus in 1998. But the same year, Pastor's daughter, Marlene Norvell, then 28, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. A few months later, another daughter, Bianca Paris, then 33, became seriously ill and was diagnosed with metals poisoning.

Pastor researched local health problems, and last year, he found 129 cancer cases in Lassen County that were unknown to California health officials.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency says the munitions contain known cancer-causing substances such as arsenic, lead, mercury and dioxin, and Pastor believes these toxins are poisoning his community. In mid-April, he joined a lawsuit against the Army over the practice.

"The Gulf War and tests done at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah showed whatever is present at the site of demolition ' can travel more than 40 miles," he says. "But the same Army tells us that their detonations in Herlong produce plumes that don't leave the depot.

"They can't have it both ways."

'Please protect us'

While most other military sites bury their munitions before they destroy them or explode them in self-contained "blast boxes," the Sierra Army Depot burns or blows up the munitions in the open air. It's the cheapest, fastest way to dispose of explosives, say depot managers.

In 1995 alone, 53 million pounds of military explosives and 200 rocket motors were detonated or burned at the depot. "Detonating 10,000 pounds above ground (at once) is unheard-of in the rest of the industry," says Dan Galbraith, the depot's demolition supervisor. "No other facility can touch it."

The depot has applied for a 10-year permit to destroy up to 1.1 million pounds of munitions per day, and California regulators are now considering the application.

Jack Pastor isn't the only depot neighbor who's beginning to fight back. Kim Ramos of Milford, Calif., says blasting at the depot shakes her house, 14 miles away. "A reasonable person can conclude there is a health risk," she told the Lassen County Board of Supervisors last month. "Please protect us."

In February, depot officials told the Reno Gazette-Journal that they have never violated the Army's regulations for open burning and detonation. But the depot's own daily records obtained by the newspaper, as well as statements from Lassen County residents, indicate the depot sometimes violates its standard operating procedures.

Spokesman Larry Rogers says such violations are rare. Lassen County officials are now investigating the allegations and are reconsidering the depot's county air-pollution permit.

In February, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., asked the Army to halt open burning and detonation at the site, and asked the Centers for Disease and Prevention to conduct a disease and risk study in northern Nevada and California. The Washoe County District Board of Health in Nevada has also demanded the Army not resume the burnings this spring until more is known about the health risks.

Although cancer rates are above average in the Lassen County towns near the depot, California Health Department officials say they don't see any statistically significant spike in the area's cancer risk. Officials add that the county, with a population of 25,000, may be too small a sample to draw any definitive conclusions from the existing cancer clusters.

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which regulates activities at the depot for the state of California, has examined computer models and data supplied by the Army. To date, the department has not found any danger in the smoke plumes.

Rogers, the depot spokesman, said destroyer crews use so many explosives that hazardous materials in the munitions are vaporized instantly, and the cloud dissipates within 15 minutes.

"At ground zero, nothing exceeds any safe human exposure," Rogers said. "The state says it's safe at ground level. I can't imagine it gets more dangerous farther away from the explosion."

Beyond state lines

But Larry Beach, who lives 14 miles southwest of the depot, says the plumes from the depot's pits often linger in the bowl of Honey Lake Valley. He shows a videotape of a plume flattening out and stretching more than 20 miles from Herlong northwest to Janesville and Susanville.

Rogers said the plume rarely remains in the valley. He said prevailing winds usually take it to the northeast - toward Washoe County, Nev., and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation.

"No one has ever done tests on the effects of all the munitions residue on the soil, water or fish," says Norman Harry, chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

"We need to make an assessment for the people of the tribe, Reno, and Lassen County who have been in the path of the cloud for 50 years."

The tribal health clinic at the Paiute reservation reports that 27 cancer cases were diagnosed between 1993 and 1999. Only nine cases were reported between 1974 and 1992.

"Let's start with the assessments and not allow them to keep burning until we know for sure it is safe," Harry says. "Let them use the alternative technologies that other depots use for weapons disposal."

The tribe has also joined the recent lawsuit against the Army. The depot resumed burning this month, and residents say the operations are at a greatly reduced volume. Yet area residents from every direction say they won't give up their fight until the smoke clouds from the depot stop floating over their neighborhoods.

"In this county we've all had friends die young of cancer," said Olivia Mitchell of Susanville. "I've had two friends die of brain cancer. That's scary. The unknown is very scary.

"We just don't know if the air we're breathing is safe or the water we're drinking is pure. I love this place. I want to know we are not being bombarded with pollutants."

Frank X. Mullen is senior reporter and projects editor at the Reno Gazette-Journal and teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.


YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Jack Pastor, Residents Against Munitions, 530/257-9400;
  • Norm Harry, chairman, Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, 775/574-1000;
  • Sierra Army Depot, 530/827-4343.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Frank X. Mullen

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