The Radford Army Ammunitions Plant opened in the 1940s, making arms and propellants for the military and creating jobs in the region.
When it was built, the Arsenal as it’s known, was miles from population centers, but not anymore. New communities have sprung up in recent years. And concerns about pollution by the plant have also been growing.
The Radford Arsenal stretches over 4600 acres in Montgomery and Pulaski counties. It’s long topped the list of the largest polluters in Virginia due to its practice of waste disposal by outdoor burning and on site wells. In 2008, Belleview Elementary School, which today sits a few miles downwind of the Arsenal, was found to have some of the worst air quality in the country.
“So, there wasn't a lot of community outreach during that time,” says Alicia Gray, spokesperson for BAE Systems, which became the operating contractor of the Arsenal in 2011.
“So after took over we had an overwhelming response from the community that said, hey, now that you’re here could you do out reach? We haven’t heard from you in a long time. So we partnered with the army and they felt passionate about it to, that as long as we were the new contractor that we could get out there and do it together and provide access.”
As part of that effort, BAE added twice yearly community meetings. This week, for the first time, representatives from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the main regulator of the Arsenal will be on the panel taking questions from the public.
“DEQ understands the concerns people are expressing and we do take them seriously,” says Bill Hayden, a spokesman for DEQ.
“We look at the science of what is involved with the burning or the incinerators or whatever other activities might be happening at the plant and we understand additional concerns,” says Hayden.
One of those concerns is the way that pollution by the arsenal has been measured, or as some say, not measured. A recent study of nearby private wells found no evidence of water pollution… confirming what numerous earlier studies have shown.
“I think they need to look at air emissions and make measurements of what’s getting into the air, not just estimates, not just models,” says Peter de Fur, who teaches Human Health Risk Assessment at Virginia Commonwealth University and runs Environmental Stewardship Concepts, a consulting firm.
“No testing makes no sense,” says Devawn Oberlender, standing on a hillside near an apartment complex in Blacksburg, not far from the Arsenal. “Sometimes it’s a smell you can taste. Sometimes it smells like sulfur and sometimes it’s just a chemically smell for lack of a better word."
It’s a windy afternoon and there is no smell here. Oberlender points out that according to its permit, the Arsenal is not allowed to burn waste in high wind. She’s the spokesperson for Environmental Patriots of the New River Valley. She is convinced there is more pollution than we know, coming from the Arsenal and she has made it her mission to ensure area residents know more about it.
“I grew up in a superfund site in another state and didn’t find out about it until I’d left college and left the state, so there are kids right now here today who deserve the efforts of someone who is going to bring some sunshine to the truth on their behalf.”
Oberlender says her group is not trying to shut down the Arsenal. But it does want it to see it open up even more about what goes on there. That’s why she’s urging everyone from local residents to state officials to turn out at the public meetings, like the one scheduled for this Wednesday night at the New River Valley Business Center in Radford.