• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Open Pits

Air Date: Week of

The Sierra Army Depot in eastern California, the nation's number one site for open burning of solid rocket fuel and detonation of conventional munitions, is seeking a 10-year permit from California to continue operations. But as Willie Albright reports, Nevadans who are downwind want the open burning and detonation stopped.


CURWOOD: If you head out of Reno, Nevada, across the border into California in a remote valley, you'll likely hear booms as you approach the Sierra Army depot. For more than 30 years this depot has been disposing of most of the U.S. military's obsolete munitions, often through open pit detonation and burning. But the Sierra Depot's neighbors have grown weary of the noise and toxic plumes that sometimes waft by their homes. And with the depot now up for renewal of its disposal permits, the voices of protest are growing. Willie Albright reports.


PASTOR: My daughter at 28 had a brain tumor. My wife came down with scala derma , which is a lupus-type disease, which is associated with dioxins.

ALBRIGHT: Jack Pastor is a successful businessman here in the rural community of Susanville, but he doesn't have much peace of mind.

PASTOR: My other daughter became very ill with heavy metal poisoning.

ALBRIGHT: The Sierra Army Depot is not far from Susanville, and Mr. Pastor blames open pit detonations there for the sickness in his family. Munitions contain heavy metals, dioxin and PCBs, and the depot is permitted to detonate one million pounds of them a day.

PASTOR: When you vaporize metals, they are 100 times more toxic. So that means, figuring a million pounds a day, that's over 500,000 pounds of vaporized metals in these plumes of smoke that will be drifting over our communities and unloading on the communities.

ALBRIGHT: Before his family got sick, Mr. Pastor supported the depot because of the jobs it brought to Lassen County. But after his daughter's illness, Mr. Pastor checked Nevada medical records and found much higher cancer rates around the depot than California studies had reported. Now he's gotten the county supervisors to call for more studies before a permit is issued.


ALBRIGHT: Meanwhile, the depot is in full operation. On this day about 40 workers are detonating relatively small quantities of cluster bombs.


ALBRIGHT: This depot is one of the few able to dispose of cluster bombs, according to depot blast master Dan Galbraith.


GALBRAITH: This particular round has the grenades in it, that after they are expelled , they hit the ground. An explosive charge launches a golfball-sized grenade up four to six feet, and it detonates.


ALBRIGHT: Mr. Galbraith says open detonation is the only way to ensure the grenades are all destroyed. Plus, he says, computer models show the resulting fireball consumes all the metals.

GALBRAITH: If we blew up 100 tons in one day, the model says all 100 tons is vaporized and goes downrange to various receptors.


GALBRAITH: And we do that twice a day, 260 days a year, for 70 years, and the receptor has to come up with a cancer risk of less than one. And so far, we've beaten that.

ALBRIGHT: But critics say modeling is no good.


ALBRIGHT: A coalition of environmentalists, locals, and the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe has filed a federal lawsuit to force the depot to conduct real tests and halt operations until an alternative to open detonation is used.


ALBRIGHT: The California Department of Toxic Substances is responsible for issuing the depot's permit, but the situation is complicated by the fact that Nevada is downwind from the detonation.


ALBRIGHT: Pyramid Lake is just 15 miles downwind from the depot. It's home to both the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe and the endangered cui-ui fish. Standing on its shore, tribal chairman Norman Harry says his people know when the depot is in operation.

HARRY: They have actually witnessed the clouds coming over the lake, especially during calmer days when the wind's not blowing very much, because it kind of dissipates itself over the lake itself. And there is kind of a reddish tint to the cloud, the toxic cloud.

ALBRIGHT: The tribe also has high cancer rates, two to three times the Nevada average. They fear the cui-ui fish, which is found only in Pyramid Lake, could become contaminated. The Sierra Army Depot is the largest munitions disposal facility in the United States, but it's not the only one. There are similar operations in Utah, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts, and studies show significantly higher cancer rates among their neighbors. Joining in the call for at least a temporary halt to the operations at the depot is U.S. Senator Harry Reade of Nevada. Senator Reade , who sits on the Military Appropriations Subcommittee, has threatened to cut funding for the depot.

READE: It's a concern to me. It's a concern to the people in Nevada. It should be a concern to everybody in the country. Why? Well, the military should be more concerned about what it does to the environment. Why do they burn there? Because it's cheap.

ALBRIGHT: Senator Reade says there are other, safer ways to dispose of munitions, such as exploding them in blast chambers. But he acknowledges that this is a more expensive method.


ALBRIGHT: Paul Volkerson , the depot's director of public works, says other detonation methods are not as expedient, and hundreds of millions of pounds of these unwanted weapons are awaiting disposal.


VOLKERSON: I feel it's important for the public to understand the viability that we have here, and the fact that we are doing good things.


VOLKERSON: The Cold War is over. We don't need these items any more. We're performing a humanitarian mission for the global good.

ALBRIGHT: But Jack Pastor says the health of his family and his neighbors is being sacrificed.

PASTOR: I lay this right at Raytheon, Lockheed-Martin. People build these rockets and bombs. They've made no preparation to retire these vehicles at all. They take the easy way out. They let contractors dig a hole in the ground and touch them off in rural areas, and we pay the price.


ALBRIGHT: For Living on Earth, I'm Willie Albright in Reno, Nevada.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth