By Julia Rothey, Dai Ja Norman, and Haley Winn
After 80 years of service, the U.S. Army Radford Ammunition’s nitrocellulose facility is set to retire, and a more modern facility will take its place.
Capital News Service
In 2015, the Radford plant was the 35th biggest polluter in the United States, with more than 10 million pounds of on-site releases of chemicals, according to the federal government’s Toxic Release Inventory.
The vast majority of the plant’s releases involved nitrate compounds disposed of into bodies of water. Only one other facility nationwide—a steel mill in Indiana—reported more water emissions.
The Radford facility is located on the New River in Montgomery County. Despite the chemical emissions, local bodies of water were classified as safe by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in a 2015 report.
Over the years, the Army facility has run afoul of environmental regulators. One of the plant’s violations was exceeding capacity on biological oxygen demand—the amount of oxygen dissolved in nearby streams. Certain chemicals reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen, which aquatic plants and animals need to survive.
The plant has continued to be in violation of the Clean Air Act for visible emissions since October 2015, and no action has been taken by the state or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
While Radford’s releases have decreased by 19 percent since 2010, the plant still has by far the most chemical emissions in Virginia.
Congress passed the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act about four decades ago, noted Ladelle McWhorter, who chairs the governing board of Virginia Organizing, an activist group for the environment and other issues.
Companies know by now what they must do to comply with the law and have internal systems for doing so (she said).
The Radford plant hopes to reduce its toxic releases with the new nitrocellulose facility. It is expected to be more compact and better for the environment, a change Lt. Col. Alicia Masson, the commander of the plant, thinks is long overdue.
Masson took command of the plant in 2015, and in interviews with the media, she has voiced concerns about the pollutants released from the facility. Her goal is to make sure it is more environmentally friendly.
Besides releasing chemicals into the water, the Radford plant also burns toxic wastes. In 2015, the facility’s air emissions—including hydrochloric and sulfuric acids, nitroglycerin, ammonia, and lead compounds—totaled about 480,000 pounds.
While she describes herself as an environmentalist at heart, Masson also recognizes that completely eliminating open burning as means of disposal at the plant is impossible.
The current plant has been operational since 1941. It was first created to support war efforts in the United States and hired more than 23,000 people to help produce ammunition at the peak of the plant’s manufacturing during World War II. The plant is still the only North American manufacturer and seller of nitrocellulose, a highly flammable compound used in the production of ammunition and explosives.
This year, the Army received a $100 million grant to complete a new nitrocellulose facility at the Radford plant. It has been in planning since 2012 after an initial contract of $240 million.
The new facility is set to be fully operational by the end of 2018 and will completely replace the current nitrocellulose facility by 2019.