About 40 local residents discussed health and environmental concerns related to the Radford Army Ammunition Plant at a community meeting Wednesday evening at the Christiansburg Public Library.
The 75-year-old army facility, which was built during World War II, is one of the primary suppliers of solventless propellants in the country, and according to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, the largest polluter in Virginia.
Representatives from the army and BAE Systems, the RAAP site operator, were available to answer questions and provide updates about RAAP projects.
Paige Bordwine, an epidemiologist with the New River Valley Health District, was also present to provide information about thyroid cancer rates in the area, a topic that has been raised at previous public meetings.
According to information provided by the Virginia Department of Health, rates of thyroid cancer in the local area reached a peak in 2009 and fell to a low in 2013, the last year for which data is available. As of 2013, local rates of thyroid cancer are well below the state’s average.
Though several attendees raised questions about the link between perchlorate—a chemical found last year in wells at Kentland Farms, a farm across the New River from the RAAP—and thyroid cancer or disease, Bordwine was largely unable to answer the questions, explaining that there have not been randomized health trials to study the effects of the RAAP’s use of open burning to dispose of waste.
Additionally, Bordwine said it is not mandated that health districts record incidences of thyroid disease, so it is much more difficult to conduct research into the ailment.
When a community member asked why there has not been more research into health risks associated with the RAAP’s open burning techniques, Bordwine said she did not know.
However, Bordwine said she has done a literature review into the connection between obesity and thyroid cancer, and suggested that there is a correlation between rates of the two illnesses.
Several people requested that ambient air testing be done in areas surrounding the RAAP. While there are no current plans to undertake ambient air testing, Len Diloia Jr., the Army’s acting chief of the operations team at the RAAP, did discuss a joint EPA-NASA air sampling test that took place in September 2016.
The samples, which were taken by a drone that flew into the smoke of 18 different open burn scenarios, is currently being analyzed. Results are expected to be announced in April.
Virginia Tech student Lizzy Merin asked how the RAAP is able to continue using its open burning ground despite the permit expiring in 2015.
Bill Hendon, BAE Systems’ safety, health and environment manager at the RAAP, explained that the RAAP is currently going through an open burning ground permit renewal process with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
Hendon said that until the permit is officially renewed, the RAAP is operating on an interim permit that has the same regulatory requirements as a full permit.
“Don’t think that because we are in the application process that we are any different than when we have the full permit,” Hendon said. “They still do their inspections, and we honor their standards.”
Hendon said that once a final draft of the permit is completed, a public hearing will be held.
Merin, who is a third-year biological systems engineering student, said after the meeting that it was nice to see that the Army and BAE Systems representatives were open to hearing community suggestions. However, she said she is still worried about the site.
“I am really concerned that nobody seems to know about it,” Merin said, adding that she believes this is especially true of students at Virginia Tech.
“I don’t think a lot of students get involved in the community outside of Blacksburg,” Merin said.
Rob Davie, acting deputy at the RAAP, also presented updates on the RAAP’s move to shut down its coal plant and future plans to minimize pollution.
“Our coal plant is actually our biggest environmental footprint,” Davie said, while discussing the natural gas fired package boilers that are set to replace the coal plant. “It’s become unreliable and is a source of constant air violations, which we need to get away from.”
Davie said that the design of the natural gas facility will allow flexibility in the future to switch to renewable energy.
The news was met with praise from the audience, including from attendee Devawn Bledsoe who had been escorted from the room shortly before 7 p.m. after breaking the meeting’s participant guidelines by talking over the representatives.
“I really commend you for getting rid of the coal plant,” Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe, a member of Environmental Patriots of the New River Valley, said she has been involved in local environmental activism since 2008.
Bledsoe said she believes there needs to be better regulation of the chemicals that are released into local water and air.
“The kids that live here, that are being ignored by politicians, their little bodies are going to pay a price,” Bledsoe said in an interview after the meeting.
Davie assured community members that the RAAP was committed to reducing its waste. Plans to construct a combined Energetic Waste Incinerator and Contaminated Waste Processer will allow the RAAP to rely less on open burning to dispose of waste, and is a part of the waste minimization initiative.
The next public meeting will be held in May or June.