Going green at the DOD

Defense Department scientists agree Army Depot uses obsolete technology

Though this photo shows a blast from the past, the Sierra Army Depot May 18 demonstrated its ability to blow junk up with 14 blasts—2,070 pounds of net explosive weight in each. The goal? To impress attendees of a global demilitarization symposium in Reno.

Though this photo shows a blast from the past, the Sierra Army Depot May 18 demonstrated its ability to blow junk up with 14 blasts—2,070 pounds of net explosive weight in each. The goal? To impress attendees of a global demilitarization symposium in Reno.

Photo by Debra Reid

Rocket scientists came to Reno last week, so as an official tree-hugger, I thought it would provide a golden opportunity to ask some questions about open-pit burning and detonation, the controversial demilitarization methods practiced at Sierra Army Depot in Herlong, Calif.

For 30 years the facility has burned and blasted obsolete munitions on an open hill. During 1999, the depot ranked as California’s No. 1 air polluter.

From the beginning, organizers of the Ninth Annual Global Demilitarization Symposium and Exposition in Reno were wary of my uncharacteristic presence at their Defense Department-affiliated event, though they had issued me a press pass without incident. When I taped lectures, they censored. When I took pictures, they dictated of whom and what. I was dangerous—pregnant, female, young and very un-scientific.

Finally, one of the organizer’s handlers asked me if I would like to interview the Director of the Army’s Defense Ammunition Center, Jim Wheeler, a.k.a. the convention’s “Big Cheese.”

At the appointed hour in the appointed room, another handler led me to my audience with the king … er, director. Finally, my chance to ask some hard questions about Sierra Army Depot’s open-pit operations.

Bullets, land mines and cluster bombs have a shelf life, much like Twinkies and soda pop. The difference? The DOD’s stale goods can spontaneously explode. The Defense Ammunition Center in McAlester, Okla., manages the conventional weapons arsenal for the entire U.S. military. This management includes disposal when weapons deteriorate.

At the conference, I learned about R3 technology: Resource recovery and recycling. R3 enables the military to recover some of the material used to build the weapons. Open-pit burning and detonation allows only the recovery of scrap metal.

These days, the Sierra Army Depot is using R3 to disassemble and recycle inert munitions—ammunition without any explosive capability, says Vince Sabatino, the facility’s civilian executive assistant. But the organization has yet to use R3 for the dangerous stuff.

Why not? I asked Wheeler.

“We were working with Sierra in the early ‘90s, but then the base was put on the BRAC list,” Wheeler explained. BRAC, the Base Realignment and Closure Act, streamlined U.S. military operations all over the world. With a meager $39 million annual budget (up this year from the average $20 million) for R3 research, Wheeler could not justify spending those precious dollars on a depot slated for the chopping block.

Through some creative business deals and re-tooling of its operations, Sierra Army Depot avoided closure in 1995. Wheeler said his department is now planning to install some R3 technology at the base in the near future.

“There’s been a lot of discourse about how inexpensive open-pit burning and detonation is, but it really depends on where you look for the value,” Wheeler said. “As we started really moving towards resource recovery and recycling in the late ‘90s, it was predicted that we would have a huge rise in cost, and we just haven’t seen that. But we’ll never be able to totally phase [it] out.

“There are some weapons that are just too dangerous to dispose of any other way. We don’t want to endanger any employee’s life or the public safety out there.”

What do the rocket scientists say?

Ken House of DeMil International thinks the DOD isn’t working fast enough to bring alternative technologies into its standard operating procedures. DeMil manufactures contained blast chambers, where bombs can be “shot” without releasing any emissions into the environment.

“The DOD hides behind the term ‘research and development phase,'” House explained. “Technological advance moves at a snail’s pace, even with systems that are already in-line for production scale work.”

What about the Sierra Army Depot’s claim that its blasts are too large for a blast chamber?

“Ask [them] why they can’t do more frequent, smaller blasts,” said House.

Naval Sea Systems Command scientist Tim Brennan also thinks open-pit burning and detonation will soon be obsolete.

“The weapons made today are designed to be recycled if they aren’t used during their viable shelf life,” he said. When the finite amount of the DOD’s old, non-recyclable stockpile dwindles, open-pit burning and detonation will no longer be necessary.

None of this criticism stopped the Army Depot’s top brass from showcasing its open-pit burning and detonation capabilities on a tour.

At 10:30 a.m. on the last day of the conference, scientists on tour buses joined munitions destroyer Dan Galbreath about a mile from the blast pits on Skedaddle Mountain, just east of Honey Lake. While Galbreath, nicknamed “Demo Dan,” explained the Depot’s Sound Prediction Monitoring system to the group, the pits began to boom. Fourteen blasts, with 2,070 pounds of net explosive weight in each.

“That’s over $100,000 dollars up in smoke,” remarked one scientist.

The rumor heard around the conference the day before the tour was that the Depot was planning a big “shot” for its honored guests. That “shot” was also heard and felt by many residents across the valley from the base—one of the major reasons why so many are in opposition to the operation.

“You’ve got to wonder what’s in that plume,” one engineer mused while watching the smoke cloud float in the air after the blasts. “Open-pit burning and detonation is an old technology,” another scientist told me. “It’s on its way out.”

After the blasts, a friendly and intense man, Dr. Daman Walia, approached.

“Did you see my booth at the exposition?” he asked. I hadn’t seen it. “Well, I’ve come up with a way to solve the U.S.'s energy problems for the next 500 years in an environmentally friendly way.”

Walia said he’d applied this science to explosive material. He showed me a report that he had submitted to the White House Energy Policy Task Group. Walia and his colleagues have devised and patented a method of converting coal to methane gas and fertilizer, without burning the coal. They use anaerobic bacteria isolated from termites to break down a ton of coal into the fuel and fertilizer in just hours.

Walia said the technology could also be applied to demilitarization operations, since explosives and propellants used to make bombs and ammo are nitrogen-based materials like coal. He said he tested his system at Nevada’s own Hawthorne Army base, turning gun and rocket propellants, nerve gas and biological weapons into tomato food.

Walia is negotiating with the Army to bring his mobile termite bomb decomposer to Sierra Army Depot in the next few months, he said.

“It’s like fulfilling the biblical prophecy of turning swords into plowshares,” he said, smiling.

The conference gave me hope. I always knew American scientists were innovative, and I believed this nation was capable of developing technology to rid the world of killing weapons without endangering its own citizens. The conversations I had with conference attendees reconfirmed my faith in the scientific community’s ingenuity.

But here’s the challenge: The Sierra Army Depot must show the concerned community living on its borders a willingness to implement these advanced alternatives.

At the Depot, Sabatino, who took over the top civilian position in December, said that change is coming. “We hope to implement R3 for explosives out here very soon,” Sabatino said.

“I want you to quote me on this,” said the Sierra Army Depot’s commander, Moses Whitehurst Jr. “R3 technology will be installed at the base by the end of the next fiscal year.”

Yes, sir.

As a staff writer for the Lassen County Times in 1999-2000, RN&R contributor Crystal Mustric earned her way onto the Sierra Army Depot’s black list of people not allowed in the facility.