Opening Doors to Communication at the Radford Arsenal, Long a Place of Mystery to the Community

Dec 16, 2017

New River Valley residents had a chance to question officials of the Radford Army Ammunitions Plant, known as the Arsenal, at a community meeting. The plant has long been a controversial neighbor to its surrounding communities in southwestern Virginia.  Its quarterly community meetings, like the one at the Christiansburg Library December 14, may be helping foster a dialogue that could benefit both camps.    

RAAP Lt. Col. James 'Jim' Scott speaks with community residents at a community meeting.
Credit Robbie Harris

A federal government Army Ammunitions plant is, by nature, a place that has its secrets.

But in recent years, Arsenal Commanders, who serve at the plant for 2-year stints, appear to be slowly thawing long time chilly relations with the community.  Lt. Colonel James Scott has been on the job for 6 months, and like Alicia Masson before him, he makes an effort to be down to earth, folksy, even.

“One of the personal notes I got was, ‘Man, Col. Scott.  Your website sucks. It’s a horrible website!  You can’t find nothing on it. Are you trying to hide?  You claim you put it on there, but we can’t find it. So, we’ve checked every (link) we can check. (It now takes) 3 clicks. If you’re not getting to the document you want in 3 clicks, we’ve got some more work to do.”

And there’s some evidence the Arsenal is least, hearing people’s concerns and at best, acting on some of them.  Last year, it ran a long-requested air quality test, flying drones over the controversial open burning grounds known as the “OBG.” That’s where explosives are disposed of by burning in the open air alongside the New River.

Now, an equally urgent community demand is in the works.  Design plans for a new incinerator, that would trap most of those emissions from the OBG, will be submitted by the end of this year.

Many expressed gratitude for the long-awaited confirmation that a state of the art incinerator for the plant is in the final design phase. Still, community members remain concerned about the kind of information they’re getting from officials. Blacksburg resident Alan Moore captured the sentiments of many who were there.  

“I’ve been coming to these meetings for a couple of years now and with all honesty, I have to say that practically every meeting I’ve been to recently, there’s been some encouraging news. So, thank you for that. But for the most part I still find it very discouraging to come into these meetings; it seems like there’s a disconnect, even though we live in the same community and we all breath the same air, there’s been a disconnect between what this community has been asking for and what your response is.”  

Moore says they want to see ongoing, real world, toxic emissions monitoring in the community around the plant. Arsenal officials maintain that they actively monitor emissions on site, that is, for all locations except the open burning ground.

They say design plans for the new contained burn incinerator there will be submitted for approval by the end of this year and that it would go online sometime within the next 5 years.

Don Langrehr is a professor at Radford University. He too expressed a pervasive feeling shared by people who came out to the meeting on a cold night, during hectic holiday time. Langrehr doesn’t fully trust the Arsenal’s account of exactly what it’s emitting into the air; especially levels of lead emissions. His plea was to allow the community to help the Arsenal accomplish its goals to assure environmental quality.

“So, whatever we can do to help. These are great meetings. We appreciate you coming to us and giving us information, but we don’t want just public relations spin, we want solutions and if we could get that closed air incinerator built, you’re going to really help us alleviate the fear we have of that plant.”  (Applause)

Several community members spoke of how much they want to close the trust gap and help the Arsenal help them. When some expressed their desire to work with Lt. Commander Scott on these issues, he replied, that he’d like to hold the next meeting on site at the Arsenal. It would be a way of letting them in, to get a look at a facility that has long been a mystery to its neighbors.  He told them he would work to see if he could that happen.