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Residents link cancer-causing emissions to health problems in Radford

A map of the Radford Army Ammunition Plant as well as the city of Radford and the towns of Blacksburg, Christiansburg and Dublin. (Image from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

Editor's Note: This reporting is one story in a three-part series. VPM News Intern Adiah Gholston contributed to the reporting.

For residents of Radford, the smokestacks and thundering explosions emitting from the Radford Army Ammunition Plant just outside city limits are a familiar and concerning sight.

Alyssa Carpenter is an advocate working to limit the impact of the plant on the local community and environment.

“We deserve to have a healthy and safe community to live in and to not have to worry about being exposed to toxic chemicals,” Carpenter said. “This issue [is] really local and really significant and really harmful.”

The plant in Radford is one of three industrial sites in Virginia recently identified as emitting cancer-causing chemicals into the environment. A map created by ProPublica, an independent nonprofit investigative news organization, uses EPA data to identify these sites nationwide. The plant has been operating in that community since World War II, and according to the map, it’s one of the most dangerous plants in the country to live and work nearby.

The plant in Radford is a sprawling campus which produces missiles, guns, ammunition, combat gear and other military technology for the U.S. military. Its tenants are contractors of the Department of Defense, and the largest area of the plant is occupied by international for-profit defense company BAE Systems.

The plant produces thousands of pounds of cancer-causing emissions every year, according to the EPA’s Air Pollutant Report. In 2020, its emissions linked to causing cancer included 842 pounds of lead compounds, 1,343 pounds of nitric acid and 62,792 pounds of nitroglycerin. According to Propublica’s map, people working and living immediately surrounding the plant are exposed to 230 times the EPA’s acceptable risk for exposure to carcinogenic emissions.

These chemicals aren’t being emitted in an isolated environment. The plant, located at 4050 Peppers Ferry Road, is in a highly populated area. It’s only about two miles down the road from both Belview and Riverlawn elementary schools; at Belview, the risk of exposure to excess cancer-causing emissions is five times higher than the EPA’s recommended limit.

But it’s not only elementary students, teachers and staff who are exposed to the emissions. There are also two other elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools within 10 miles of the plant. Radford University is also located only six miles away, and Virginia Tech’s campus in Blacksburg is located only nine miles away. There are also three nursing homes immediately surrounding the plant, where hundreds of elderly people are exposed to excess cancer risk on a daily basis.

Not only that, but the plant is a gathering space for community members including children. Sydney Van Arsdale grew up in Radford. She says her school would bring her to the plant for gymnastics practice.

“We would have gymnastics class down there. And I had friends that worked for the arsenal,” Van Arsdale said.

Carpenter lived in Radford during college and says it wasn’t only gymnastics students who were encouraged to congregate around the plant.

“[There were] students who used to jog by the Radford Army Ammunition Plant together,” Carpenter said.

According to Justine Barati, director of public affairs for the plant’s headquarters, the Joint Munitions Command, about 3,000 people work on-site at the plant.

Jennifer Grover lives in the agricultural area of Montgomery County that borders Radford. She says she’s been waiting for the ProPublica map to confirm her worst fears about the emissions she observes rising out of its smokestacks everyday.

“I grew up here in 1957, when I was three years old. So whatever they're doing over there, I've been inhaling it or living with it since I was a little kid, except for periods after college,” Grover said. “There do seem to be a lot of higher cases of thyroid problems and some kinds of cancers.”

Grover’s husband and father both died of lung diseases. She says she doesn’t know whether to attribute their deaths, or her own thyroid condition, to the emissions the plant causes.

“My husband's was called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis…. It's a progressive scarring of the lungs. And they don't really know what to do for it,” Grover said. “I do know kind of a lot of people who've had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis from here, even though it's supposed to be a really rare disease.”

According to a 2013 study by researchers at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis does not have a known cause due in part to its rarity. Though the cause is unclear, the study says potential risk factors for the disease include occupational and environmental exposures.

Some residents, like Carpenter, say they do attribute their health conditions to the plant’s emissions because they developed severe thyroid conditions unusually early in life.

“I myself have been diagnosed with thyroid disease, and I had my thyroid removed in 2020 after living in Radford and around the Radford Arsenal in college. And I don't have any previous family history of thyroid problems,” Carpenter said. “Suddenly to be diagnosed with these things after living right beside the Radford arsenal at such a young age, as a 26-year-old, it felt like it couldn't be a coincidence that I had lived in the same area where I've heard that there are a lot of the same issues going on.”

Carpenter says when she opened up about her illness on social media, she received an outpouring of support from her fellow Virginia Tech alumni, many of whom she says complained of similar medical issues

“After I started opening up about my experience, we had an outpouring of support and comments from our community kind of processing and realizing that they've lived in Radford their whole life and they had their thyroid removed,” Carpenter said. “I think the pieces are finally just starting to come together, that we're not all struggling individually with these health issues, that we're really struggling together with these health issues.”

VPM analyzed cancer incidence statistics from the  Virginia Cancer Registry to see whether thyroid cancer appeared at higher rates in Radford than in other communities. Data on thyroid cancer incidence is not available for most of the localities in Virginia, but in Radford the rate is 15.7 per 100,00 people. The thyroid cancer incidence in that report ranged from 4.9 per 100,000 people in Pittsylvania County to 23.2 per 100,000 people in Falls Church.

But, that data doesn’t account for the other thyroid-related conditions that residents link to their exposure to emissions. The proximity of two major colleges also obscure those statistics; both Radford and Montgomery county are among the six youngest localities in the state. Carpenter also points out that because they move away after attending college at one of the local universities, many people exposed to these chemicals are diagnosed in other parts of the country. She says there needs to be more transparency from universities about the dangers of living and working near their campuses.

“I might have chosen a different place to study. And my life might be drastically different right now. And I'll never get that back,” Carpenter said. “I was so young, so bright and so excited to go out and make this difference in my community. And I had to leave that job in that profession, because of my health issues.”

After she was diagnosed, Carpenter took action and reached out to her fellow community members in Radford to form the Citizens for Arsenal Accountability in 2017. The goal of the group was to stop the plant’s practice of open burning ammunition and other toxic materials.

Open burning is a practice used by the U.S. military to dispose of chemicals, waste, metals, petroleum and most importantly military weapons like ammunition and equipment.

Exposure to those open burns are classified by the Virginia Department of Veterans Affairs as putting soldiers at a greater risk for long-term health conditions. The long-term effects of this exposure are being tracked by the department’s Open Burn Pit Registry, but the specific consequences of exposure to these pits is unknown.

Soldiers who register for the OBPR may qualify for compensation and benefits, according to the department, but activists say no such protections are available for civilians exposed to the same fumes at home.

“Open burning is an extremely dangerous and hazardous practice because they're sending really, really toxic chemicals into the air and into the environment,” Carpenter said.

Though the Radford plant is allowed to do it, the Department of Defense prohibits the use of open burn pits for disposal of waste unless there is “no feasible alternative” to protect the health and safety of its soldiers.

According to another investigative story by ProPublica, Congress banned American industries and localities from disposing of hazardous waste in these open burn pits about three decades ago. However, lawmakers made an exception for the Pentagon and its contractors that still remains in place and permits the operation of nearly 200 open burn sites. Of those, 51 sites currently operate in the U.S., according to federal records obtained by ProPublica.

“They have essentially been grandfathered into being allowed to continue open burning where other places of the world have eliminated open burning practices,” Carpenter said. “Because there's no safe way to burn toxic chemicals.”

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality halved the amount it permits the Radford plant to open burn last year from 10,000 pounds of incinerated material per day to 5,000 pounds per day, according to The Roanoke Times. According to the plant’s spokesperson, it typically does not burn as much material as it is permitted to.

“Radford meets, or is well within, its emission limits for many monitored streams and has reduced emissions substantially, greater than 40%, for several emissions categories in the last five years, including open burning of waste propellant products,” Barati said. “The permitted open burning ground weight limits are never actually reached. As an example, in 2020, RFAAP only used 5% of the currently permitted limit.”

In addition to limiting open burning practices, Barati says the plant is working on constructing a new Energetic Waste Incinerator/Contaminated Waste Processor facility that she says will “nearly eliminate the use of the open burning.” But, that project won’t be complete until 2026.

Until the 10-year permit was renewed last year, the plant had been operating on an expired permit for six years, according to ProPublica’s investigation. Revising that permit to eliminate open burning practices was the Citizens for Arsenal Accountability’s original goal.

“Our mission, our goal is to hold the Radford Army Ammunition Plant accountable for the continued violation of its permits. And also to find a healthier, cleaner and safer technology for our future, for our community,” Carpenter said.

Not only do they observe the impact of the plant on their long-term health, but advocates in the area say the explosions made by the plant’s open burning practices and other military exercises scare them and make them feel unsafe.

“They were shooting missiles into a clay bank that would send up a huge orange mushroom cloud. That, to little kids, was really scary, especially since it was the time when we were being taken out in the hall and told to get under your desk,” Grover said. “The jets that fly barely over the tree level, barely missed your roof and your chimney, are alarming. And no one should really have to live in that kind of a war zone when you're not even in the war.”

Despite the permit being renewed, Carpenter, Grover and Van Arsdale say they’re not done advocating for better conditions in Radford.

“Our citizens, our community members are used as collateral. We are paying the cost. We're offsetting the costs with our bodies and with our health and with our lives,” Carpenter said.