Redstone Arsenal expands hazardous waste cleanup

Published: Sep. 24, 2015 at 2:26 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 22, 2015 at 8:50 PM CDT
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The Redstone Arsenal has been in constant cleanup mode for decades after building chemical weapons during World War II. Now, the cleanup of those weapons is shifting into overdrive. The Arsenal is asking the state for permission so it can nearly triple the number of hazardous waste storage units.

Have you ever wondered, what happens to all those weapons and highly charged components? And, what's being done to keep the air and water safe for everyone in the Tennessee Valley?

Between 1942 and 1945, 45,000,000 units of ammunition were assembled at Redstone Arsenal. More than half of those units were chemical munitions.

Jason Watson knows all about those weapons since he's an Environmental Protection Specialist with the Arsenal. Watson says, "At the end of World War II activities, many of these munitions were buried at Redstone. It was acceptable practices during the 40's and 50's to just bury the munitions."

When we fast forward to 2015, we find the mission is much different. Scientists and environmental workers at Redstone are being asked to find those weapons, dig them up and dispose of them so they aren't dangerous to the air or water here in the Tennessee Valley.

Yet, this is a massive job with a reach that keeps expanding. That's why the Arsenal is asking the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to modify its hazardous waste permit. The Arsenal wants permission to add more hazardous waste storage areas, or igloos.  It also wants to truck in an Explosive Destruction System, which true to its name, will be used to destroy the many mortar shells on Arsenal property.

Watson gave a detailed description about how the EDS works.

"We then apply explosives to the munition to open it up and then add chemicals to it as a reagent to react with the mustard and then bring it to a not chemical like level. It's still a hazardous agent, but not as hazardous as the mustard."

Once the mortars are opened up and treated in the Explosive Destruction System or EDS, they're brought to igloos that look a lot like fortified bunkers. 24 additional igloos are on the Arsenal's latest permit modification request. Contaminants are stored in the igloos for different time periods. Eventually, they'll be transported off the Arsenal to yet another location.

Arsenal officials say, when they're using the Explosive Destruction System, they monitor the air for chemical agent exposure to make sure their workers are safe.

Yet, what about those people who live nearby? That's exactly what Elsie Ellingsen has been thinking for decades. Her husband worked at the Arsenal, so, she pays close attention to her surroundings when she hears loud booms at her home in south Huntsville.

Ellingsen told us, "Being underground, it shook the house more.  And then, when I found the water meter, it was filled up with water, and that was cracked and that almost assured me it was underground."

Her grandson Jeff Ellingsen lives next door.  He says, he worries about the same things.

"Anything getting near the water or air should be closely looked at and monitored in my opinion."

Arsenal scientists, like Barry Hodges, say, that's exactly what they plan to do.

"For the groundwater, however, there will be an ongoing monitoring program going on out here for a very long time until we've satisfied the state whatever area we're monitoring has finally cleaned up."

Speaking of the state, ADEM will decide if Redstone Arsenal will be able to add the Explosive Destruction System and the 24 additional waste storage igloos. In a statement, ADEM says its review of the Arsenal's permit request will ensure the Arsenal follows all regulatory requirements and quote, "is protective of human health and the environment, and thus does not negatively impact the air, ground water or surface water at the Arsenal or in the Tennessee Valley."

If you'd like to learn more about Redstone Arsenal's request to change its permit to store more hazardous waste, there will be a public meeting Tuesday, September 29 at 5:30 pm at the Madison Public Library.

You can also see the Arsenal's original permit for waste storage that was filed back in 2010.

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