Nevada county to Army: Take this smog and shove it

  • Washoe commissioner Joanne Bond

    Jane Braxton Little
  • Airborne debris heads from Sierra Army Depot toward Nevada

    Jane Braxton Little
 

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 These days the base uses open-air burning and detonation to destroy thousands of outdated munitions.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 In 1995, Sierra rid the nation's armed services of around 56 million pounds of outdated munitions and 200 spent rocket motors.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

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

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz