An aerial view of the Radford Army Ammunition Plant, which is spending millions on pollution controls as part of an effort that has helped to smooth relations with its neighbors. (Image courtesy of Chris Finley/BAE Systems)

CHRISTIANSBURG — Lt. Col. James Scott’s first community meeting as commander of the Radford Army Ammunition Plant two years ago began as a standoff.

Armed police officers stood watch around the perimeter of the room. Community members sat in chairs on one side. 

Army officials and staffers from BAE Systems, the private contractor that operates the plant — regularly listed as Virginia’s biggest polluter and the scene of a deadly fire last year  — sat behind tables on the other side. The meeting began with a recitation of the stern rules governing the gathering.

Scott’s final community meeting, on a March weeknight at the Christiansburg public library nearly two years later, went much more smoothly.

“You can see what we’ve grown here,” Scott told a group of about 25 citizens. “No longer the armed police officers in the back of the room. No longer (us) sitting behind the tables.”

“No more reading the rules,” added BAE Systems spokesman Chris Finley.

“The community has chosen, and those that are here have chosen, to want to solve problems,” Scott said. “Instead of just throwing the proverbial chair, they want to be a part of the solution. We don’t all have to agree. We just have to work together to find a better positive ground for our community, ourselves.”

So what happened to smooth out relations between officials from the facility and its neighbors in the New River Valley?

A simple willingness to listen and share concerns, they say. Also, $150 million-plus in recent and planned investments by the Department of Defense to build new facilities that will cut 95 percent of the plant’s emissions by 2023.

The entrance to the Radford Army Ammunition Plant, which has been one of the biggest polluters in Virginia

That includes the $46.7 million replacement of the onsite coal-burning power plant with a natural gas-fired unit in May 2017, and a new incinerator planned for 2023 that will capture the fumes from most of the chemical and solid waste that has historically been burned outside.

“It can’t just be our word,” Scott said after the community meeting. “So the government proved that by shutting down the coal-fired power plant in March of 2017. The government continued to prove it by funding these studies proving our technology is capturing the particulate matter. We’ve proven it by moving forward with the design for a new incinerator and energetic waste chamber and the funding coming along with that.”

The plant was built in 1941 as one of several suppliers of ordnance to the United States military during World War II. After the war, the country closed all but two of those plants, and after the Korean War, only the Radford arsenal remained. Other operations from those closing plants relocated to the Radford plant, which now supplies propellant for artillery and explosives for the military.

Those operations generate lots of chemical and solid waste, which the plant has disposed of by open burning at a horseshoe bend in the New River. Federal drone testing of the air near the open burning ground found lead, mercury and chromium, as well as compounds like nitroglycerin and perchlorate. 

In the summer of 2017, the nonprofit, investigative news outlet ProPublica published a story titled “Open burns, ill winds” that exposed the toxic pollutants released by the Radford plant.

The nearby town of Blacksburg responded by passing a resolution contending that the plant wasn’t doing enough to protect the environmental quality of nearby communities, including failing to self-report 287 violations of smokestack regulations between 2011 and 2013 and allowing non-military tenants at the plant to benefit from the lower environmental standards afforded Department of Defense sites. 

‘We’re going to fight about it’

That one-two punch of public condemnation led to Scott’s first, tense community meeting as the new commander of the plant.

The arsenal had begun holding quarterly meetings in 2012 under its then-commander Lt. Col. Byron Penland. They continued under Scott’s predecessor, Lt. Col. Alicia Masson. The shift from a coal-fired to natural gas-fired plant occurred under her watch, inspired by a similar shift by Celanese, an acetate manufacturer located up the road in Narrows, Va. The move away from open burning to an expanded incinerator also began then, as the Defense Department opened investigations at open burning facilities around the country.

Still, by the time Scott arrived in 2017, tension had reached fever pitch.

“It was really an us versus them,” Scott said. “It was us trying to defend our position and them trying to undermine or tear down the position. We weren’t willing to see eye to eye. I liken it to drawing a six and each of us standing on opposite sides, and you saying it’s a nine and me saying it’s a six, and we are screaming and ready to go to blows.”

Beth Spillman of Floyd County started going to the meetings around then. For all her worries about environmental contamination, she was almost more alarmed by the confrontational feeling in the room.

“My biggest concern was the atmosphere, because there were police people there, big hulking police people at a library,” Spillman said. “The atmosphere of ‘Let’s state the rules of behavior at the beginning.’ It was adversarial. There was adversarial data fighting going on. They’d throw up these incredibly complex data sets. I know how you can play with data, and I was laughing. It was, they’re going to make it as complex as they can and then we’re going to fight about it.”

Spillman set out to disrupt that dynamic, inviting Scott and his team to Blacksburg’s Sustainability Week celebration.

“My main goal has been to get communication more personalized so we could have more cohesion between the arsenal and the community,” Spillman said. “The meeting this past fall during Sustainability Week was with food, no projectors, no handouts, no anything. It was just person to person.”

Scott and his team also invited community members to tour the plant. To expand on the air quality measurements taken by drone, the commander engaged a team at Virginia Tech to produce an in-depth study of pollutants from the ammunition plant. Emily Satterwhite, a Virginia Tech professor and activist who was among the protesters who locked themselves to construction equipment on the Mountain Valley Pipeline last year, worked with two other professors and nine undergraduate students to document community concerns and analyze pollutant levels at the plant through the fall of 2018.

The study found that two-thirds of respondents had positive feelings toward the arsenal. Among those with concerns, 69 percent were primarily worried about pollution and environmental health. Virginia Tech professors also measured air and soil contamination, with Linsey Marr leading the air monitoring and Chis Thompson monitoring heavy metals in soil and cow blood.

“These results indicate that while open burning was occurring this summer, the observed concentrations of the metals and volatile organic compounds at these locations were well below levels of health concern,” the Virginia Tech team reported in its presentation on its findings. “While Dr. Marr’s air study found that recent levels of metals were low, levels of metals at certain depths of soil samples would suggest elevated exposures in the past.”

However, soil test results for arsenic and lead were well below the most stringent standards (set by the United Kingdom).

‘A long and engaged regulatory process’

While the Virginia Tech team worked on the study, Scott issued what he called an “Environmental Stewardship Challenge” to his Army staff and BAE Systems to reduce waste at the open burning grounds by 50 percent by 2021.

Cara Bandera, safety, health and environment manager for BAE Systems at the Radford plant, reported that the plant already had come close to the target, with a 47 percent reduction in waste from 2017 to 2018. That came in large part from completely eliminating the burning of MK90 propellent grains, which power rockets deployed on aircraft. The plant worked with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to get approval to saw the grains in half so that they could be disposed of in the facility’s incinerator, which captures emissions, instead of at the open burning ground.

The shift in processing MK90 grains also resulted in a 73 percent reduction in lead contained in material processed at the open burning ground. Scott said that number would be even higher but the annual average was depressed because Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality did not grant approval for the new procedure until May.

The Radford plant’s new explosive waste incinerator will replace the current model, which dates back to the 1970s and which can’t handle the burning of especially explosive waste. BAE Systems spokesman Finley said preliminary estimates for the cost of the new incinerator range from $100 million to $120 million. DEQ requires it to be permitted for hazardous waste and air emissions. Finley said both permit applications were submitted to DEQ last year, and the required public meetings held.

The agency is currently evaluating those permits as part of a multi-year process that began with the arsenal seeking renewal of permits for its open burning ground. As the arsenal has pivoted toward the new incinerator, the permitting process has evolved.

“It’s been a long and engaged regulatory process to review these draft permits,” DEQ spokeswoman Ann Regn said. “We’ve been working with the facility for at least six years on ways to reduce the amount of material being burned.”

If approved, the new incinerator will include a larger burn chamber that will allow the plant to thermally treat 95 percent or more of what’s currently treated at the open burning grounds, Bandera told attendees at the community meeting.

Concerns remain — the meeting included some back-and-forth between the staff and citizens about nitrates released into the New River — but the tone largely was mutually complimentary and polite.

One of the biggest concerns at the March meeting seemed to be Scott’s departure and the arrival of a new commander this summer. And the meetings’ attendees said the arsenal must continue testing and public engagement.

“When the incinerator gets built, that’s not the end of the story at all,” Spillman said. “I’ve been a big voice for getting the testing done and doing it cyclically. You don’t just test once; you do it cyclically. And get the community involved.”

Virginia Tech professor Satterwhite hesitated to generalize, but she too sensed progress.

“I wouldn’t want to speak for the community, but I think you see the kind of lovefest here tonight,” Satterwhite said. “Some people who are often here aren’t here, and I don’t want to speak for them. I hope they feel more at ease but I don’t know for sure. I feel comfortable saying that the attempt to communicate and partner is genuine.”

[Editor’s note/disclosure: Mason Adams works part-time in Virginia Tech’s university relations department]

UPDATE: This article has been updated to add additional information from the Virginia Tech study to clarify the results of soil testing conducted by the team.