by Dolores Blalock
This article originally appeared in The Piney Woods Journal
“Last January I saw a plume of black smoke coming from Clean Harbors, about one mile from home,” says a long-time resident of Colfax, a small, rural town in Grant Parish.
“My daughter and I went to investigate. I drove through the cloud of smoke as it hovered over Highway 471 like a thick fog–an iridescent orange eclipse that obstructed the sun.
“There was no odor or taste but I experienced breathing and eye irritation. My daughter got a bad headache. I realized we were in dangerous driving and breathing conditions. My instinct was to get away quickly.
“There are serious health problems in my home of four adults, and I’m concerned. These include heart trouble, thyroid cancer, unusual allergies, rashes, hives, lung and urinary tract problems. My neighbors experience some of the same problems.
“I have the right to work my farm, which takes a lot of time, without a dark cloud of emissions hanging over my head and settling on my property.”
Clean Harbors, Colfax employees accept shipments on 18-wheelers filled with the most dangerous explosive toxic waste transported from across the nation. Then they use primitive equipment and chemicals–metal trays, diesel fuel and perchlorate–to ignite flames by remote detonation. They burn and explode thousands of pounds of poisonous chemicals freely into the air of Central Louisiana. Most places in the US have outlawed this archaic disposal method of open burning.
The parent company, Clean Harbors, Inc., is the leading provider of environmental, energy and industrial services throughout North America, according to their financial report. Revenues for 2015 totaled $3.28 billion.
Headquartered in Norwell, Massachusetts, this huge company submitted a permit request last December to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) to get four times bigger at Colfax. They wanted to increase the amount they could burn from 540,000 pounds to over 2,000,000 pounds per year of some of the worst chemicals on the planet. And they wanted to extend the time they could operate for ten more years after their permit runs out in September 2017. This 700-acre Clean Harbors commercial facility currently burns over 300 explosive “waste streams” in solid, sludge, and liquid forms. Yet, one serious poison–like chromium-6–can be too many.
Remember when Julia Roberts played Erin Brokovich and stopped that poison in California? In Colfax, Clean Harbors burns that same chemical, chromium-6, plus 48 other toxins including lead and mercury.
Federal law forbids open burning of explosive toxins unless no other safer disposal methods exist. Yet the LDEQ allows this company to burn chemicals outdoors even though effective alternative equipment exists today, from hydrolysis to detonation chambers and enclosed burn units. Scientists and engineers developed this equipment to get rid of toxins and leave air clean during the past two decades once the dangers of open burning became evident.
Ghost Town Wasteland
This website describes a location in Utah where Clean Harbors burns very dangerous chemicals like those sent to Colfax — perchlorate, for example. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aragonite,_Utah
Some studies show as little as one exposure to perchlorate can damage your thyroid for life. This hazardous waste site, called Aptus Incinerator, is located outside a ghost town. Surrounding lands are in West Desert Hazardous Industries District in the middle of nowhere near the Dugway Proving Grounds.
In contrast to the ghost town on barren Utah land, where they put poisons in an incinerator, over 50 small towns sit in a circle within 20 miles of Clean Harbors, Colfax. Open burning allows pollution to float all around carried by the winds.
During summer 2015, the company transported nearly 400,000 pounds of tritonal from Camp Minden to Colfax. Tritonal is a mixture of about 80% TNT and 20% aluminum powder. They exploded and burned it all in open air–without any public announcement or warning. The blasts shook houses and rattled windows daily for miles around.
The explosions were 12 miles from Cloutierville, a center of Creole culture. And the poisonous vapors could drift uncontrolled from Marco, Lena, Chopin, Hotwells, Montgomery, and Gorum to Natchitoches, a town of 18,000. By air, it’s 27 miles away.
Louisiana’s Best Small Town Threatened
Founded in 1714 and considered one of the most romantic towns in Louisiana, USA Today recently recognized Natchitoches as the Best Small Town in the South. Tourists love the sparkling lights of the Christmas Festival, French architecture with beautiful ironwork, the lovely brick main street along Cane River, and locations they saw on-screen in Steel Magnolias. Toxic pollution threatens the oldest town west of the Mississippi because it is well within the fifty–mile danger zone around Clean Harbors.
The chemicals could swirl through Natchitoches and settle over the mansion at Melrose Plantation owned by Marie Therese Coincoin who left the legacy of the Isle Brevelle Creole Community. Melrose later sheltered Miss Cammie Henry, who encouraged the work of many artists including Caroline Dorman and Clementine Hunter. People love this part of Louisiana and don’t want it treated like a wasteland by Clean Harbors.
Explosive hazardous waste they burn at Colfax also affects Alexandria, in the heart of Louisiana, a state that recently ranked 50 in health–last place among all the states in the US according to the United Health Foundation.
Money to Burn
Clean Harbors reported revenues of $893 million in the third quarter of 2015 and $713 million in the fourth quarter. They can afford to invest in modern equipment to protect the health of surrounding communities. Instead, this company rains down poison on the Colfax community of 1500 people–about 70 % African-American, the majority women. The lead, mercury, cadmium, perchlorate and many other chemicals listed in their application can cause cancer, birth defects, and other health problems. How and why did this happen?
In February 2015, local citizens demanded an alternative to the proposed open burning of 18 million pounds of M6 propellant and clean burning igniter at Camp Minden. This is one of the largest stockpiles of military explosive waste in US history. Louisiana heard their call. So did the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Over $30 million was allocated to build alternative disposal equipment to safely destroy the tons of toxins at Camp Minden. Although Clean Harbors applied, their bid was not selected.
However, the executives clearly demonstrated their knowledge of the technologies used elsewhere. In their PowerPoint presentation to the selection committee, they explained and compared the following technologies: thermal oxidizers, rotary kiln, super critical water oxidation, detonation chambers, hydrolysis, bioremediation, and open burning. This company owns incinerators in other states and they are currently expanding their incinerator in Eldorado, AR. They just won’t spend a dime of their billions to make Colfax safe.
“Clean Harbor’s open burning of lead compounds near Colfax is a crime against humanity. The children who inhale this lead will suffer permanent loss of their mental capacity to be productive adults,” says Ron Hagar, chair of the Camp Minden Citizens Advisory Group. “This corporation is choosing to take advantage of a Louisiana DEQ that will ignore their release of lead–rather than dispose of the lead-containing explosives in one of the safe units they own and operate. They choose this path for one reason–financial profit.”
“These toxins are not being destroyed, but rather they are being transformed into other compounds (like lead oxides and chlorine gas), which are carcinogens, neurotoxins, and endocrine disruptors,” says Dr. Brian Salvatore, a chemistry professor at LSU Shreveport. “Clean Harbors is disbursing these toxins throughout the region, as fine particulate matter aerosols and vapors, which are inhaled. Some of these fine particles accumulate in the lungs, and some are even small enough to be absorbed directly into the bloodstream, whereby the toxins are distributed throughout the body.”
“This company has two faces,” said a local public official. “In private, they are apologetic about the explosions that rattle windows miles away. In public, they defend their right to explode poisons and drain who-knows-what into the creeks and bayous that lead to Red River.
“In public, people from this company have been rude, crude, pitiful, hateful, mean and horrible to us. Now community groups and politicians have objected to open burning; so Clean Harbors is throwing around promises and money, and bringing in polite people trying to keep their open burn business-as-usual. We just want clean air and water around Colfax.”
Grassroots and Politics
In January 2016, local citizens united to protest Clean Harbors’ proposed four-fold expansion of its open-burn operation in Colfax. As a result of the public protests and media exposure, the company withdrew its request to expand its permit, and the scheduled February public hearing was cancelled.
The message? Times have changed! Citizens know open burning is illegal when safe and effective alternative technologies exist.
“People who love Grant Parish support the ban on outdoor burning. They love the fact that when they moved here we had clean air and clean water. And we are absolutely terrified of what’s going on,” said Representative Terry Brown (Independent–Colfax) in the Alexandria Town Talk.
Along with State Representative Gene Reynolds (Democrat–Minden), Brown co-authored HB 11, a law to ban the open burning of toxic explosive waste throughout Louisiana.
In response, Clean Harbors hired two Baton Rouge lobbying firms: Southern Strategy Group, and the TJC Group. In addition, Clean Harbors’ executives from various states converged on Baton Rouge for weeks to talk with legislators. Amendments added to HB 11 allowed Clean Harbors to operate until 2018. An amendment exempted the military which burns explosives in the open at Fort Polk. Although HB 11 passed the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, the massive lobbying effort resulted in the bill’s withdrawal before it reached the full House.
Next, House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 118 replaced it. This resolution requires the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to contract for and oversee tests of soil, water and air. And they must issue a report on the results within six months. However, no funds were allocated for this testing. The resolution also calls for a committee of concerned citizens to study the problems.
The DEQ has never sent experts out to test the Colfax burn site. Without any direct oversight, this agency accepts the test reports from companies paid by Clean Harbors. For the past eight years, the DEQ has relied on Clean Harbors’ own reports, many based on formulas, modeling, and estimates rather than actual tests. DEQ recently accepted a Clean Harbors annual report that was only one page long.
Rep. Brown said he lies awake at night praying to God these Clean Harbors’ people will have a softening of their hearts and agree to do closed-container burning with filtered air. He knows they can afford to do what is right and moral.
Equipment Can Stop Pollution
The enclosed burn unit at Camp Minden is making a positive difference. During tests in April 2016, the new state-of-the-art equipment disposed of 700,000 pounds of M6 propellant in one month with no harmful pollution emissions from the explosive toxins.
“The air that comes out of the stack is clean. The filters work even better than we had hoped,” says Adam Adams, EPA On-Site Coordinator at Camp Minden.
Before going into full operation in June or July, Explosive Services International will conduct these essential tests at Camp Minden. They will oversee the burning of 60,000 pounds of toxins daily for about one year until the entire remaining 16 million pounds of M6 propellant and other waste explosives are gone.
Currently, Clean Harbors continues to burn 540,000 pounds of lead, cadmium, perchlorate, chromium-6, and dozens of other poisons in open air annually.
“They put the debris on a metal sheet and burn it. Here we are in the twenty-first century, and they’re using Roman army methods,” says Lt. General Russel Honoré in the Baton Rouge Advocate.
This hero of the Katrina recovery has linked Louisiana environmental groups to form the Green Army. They have a laser focus on Clean Harbors, Colfax because good equipment can save health and lives. They stand against open burning of explosive toxic chemicals–a sad and dangerous legacy of the last century.