Radford Ammo Plant Tops Va. in Toxic Releases

December 20, 2011

By Amy Vu and Marcella Robertson

Over the past six years, the Radford Army Ammunition Plant has released more toxic chemicals into the environment than any other facility in Virginia – about 78.5 million pounds of subtances that may pose health risks. And while toxic releases have been declining statewide, the Radford plant’s emissions increased last year.

In 2010, the plant’s on-site toxic releases totaled about 12.5 million pounds – up nearly 50,000 pounds from the previous year. This trend was opposite that of facilities in the state overall. The total amount of Virginia toxic releases dropped from 51 million pounds in 2009 to 48 million pounds in 2010.

Those numbers came from the Toxic Release Inventory, a database compiled by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Every year, factories, power plants and other operations must report to the TRI how much of each chemical they released into the air, water or land. That requirement is mandated by Section 313 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, or EPCRA.

According to Nichelle McDaniel, environmental specialist for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, “reporting is required to provide the public with information on the releases and other waste management of EPCRA Section 313 chemicals in their communities and to provide EPA with release and other waste management information to assist the agency in determining the need for future regulations.”

The top three chemicals released by the Radford Army Ammunition Plant are nitrate compounds, hydrochloric acid and nitroglycerin.

In 2010, the plant released 12 million pounds of nitrate compounds alone; all of it went into waterways.

According to the Environmental Working Group, a public health and environmental protection organization, “high nitrate levels in well-water can cause the sometimes-fatal ‘blue baby’ syndrome in infants, impairing blood’s capacity to carry oxygen. Over years, adults consuming excess nitrates can suffer kidney and spleen damage.”

Also last year, the Radford facility released 314,000 pounds of hydrochloric acid into the air, the TRI database showed.

According to Environment Writer, an authoritative newsletter, hydrochloric acid “can cause circulatory collapse which may lead to death; it can also cause asphyxial death due to glottic edema. It can also cause conjunctivitis and corneal burns, inflammation and ulceration of the respiratory tract, dermatitis, skin burns, rhinitis, laryngitis, tracheitis, bronchitis, pulmonary edema, dental erosion, hoarseness, a feeling of suffocation, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, dehydration, convulsions, oliguria, hypotension, chills, shock, lethargy, stupor, permanent visual damage, cough, and choking.”

And in 2010, the Radford plant released 59,000 pounds of nitroglycerin into the air and 5,900 into the water.

Nitroglycerin targets the cardiovascular system, blood, skin and central nervous system and can cause “throbbing headache; dizziness; nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain; hypotension; flush; palpitations; methemoglobinemia; delirium, central nervous system depression; angina; and skin irritation,” according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Radford Army Ammunition Plant - photo by Justine Barati, U.S. Army

The Radford plant – about 40 miles west of Roanoke – manufactures propellants and explosives for missiles, tanks, and other weapons systems for the U.S. armed forces. Established in 1940 during World War II, it is the sole supplier of the explosive TNT to the U.S. Department of Defense. The military installation is owned by the government and operated by a contractor.

The Radford Army Ammunition Plant conducts quarterly Restoration Advisory Board meetings to keep the public informed of operations at the site.

Because of the health hazards posed by toxic releases, the EPA and Virginia DEQ urge facilities to reduce their emissions and to safely recycle or dispose of toxic substances.

“The TRI encourages facilities to consider source reduction methods that reduce the amount of any hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant entering any waste stream or otherwise released into the environment,” McDaniel said.

Here is the data used in this article.


About the data

The data for this story came from the Toxic Release Inventory, a database of information on the release and disposal of more than 600 toxic chemicals from thousands of facilities across the United States.

The TRI, which is compiled annually by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, contains one record for each chemical handled by each facility. It shows how much of the chemical was released into the environment or whether it was recycled or treated and disposed of.

One of the TRI’s primary purposes is to inform communities about toxic chemical releases to the environment.

We downloaded the TRI files for Virginia for the years 2005 through 2010, cleaned up the data to standardize the spelling of names, and combined the records in Microsoft Access for our initial analysis. The resulting data set had more than 10,000 records filed by more than 600 different facilities.

We grouped the data in various ways to summarize the statistics and look for patterns. For example, we created a list of all Virginia facilities and the amount of toxic waste each released from 2005-2010. We decided to focus on the Radford Army Ammunition Plant because it emitted the most toxic waste.

We also created a chart of the total of releases in the state by year. Finally, we grouped the data by the specific chemical and the amount released each year. (There were 157 different toxic chemicals released in Virginia, including 38 known to cause cancer.)