Feature: The Bomb That Went Off Twice, Part 2

By on January 24, 2018

The explosive compound RDX helped make America a superpower. Now, it’s poisoning the nation’s water and soil.

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica.org

As early as 1979, company documents show, Mallinckrodt, the company that operated the plant before Ensign-Bickford acquired it, had detected nitrate contamination related to explosives in water wells offsite.

In 1980, after reports of more waste being dumped into ditches and leaking from unlined pits, an EPA official stated that the contaminants that leaked could be expected to contain explosives. By 1981, the company was theorizing that the contaminants were seeping through the ground and into the irrigation ditch.

“I regularly saw the waste water from that operation leave the production building and flow in a downhill ditch,” Lawrence Bradshaw, who worked with RDX production at the plant for 19 years, said in testimony. Bradshaw described poor maintenance and constantly overflowing equipment. “The waste water … contained RDX waste and TNT waste. … It was red in color.”

{Read: The Bomb That Went Off Twice, Part 1}

Then, in 1986, the liner for a 45,000-square-foot, 12-foot-deep waste pond of nitric acid ruptured, sending hundreds of thousands of gallons of acid and other contaminants from the production of the explosives into the soil and the ditch nearby. After the spill, Ensign-Bickford tested the water in its monitoring wells and detected RDX at 10,700 parts per billion — some of the highest levels ever recorded in the environment and about 5,000 times what the EPA thought was safe. A few years later, a consultant hired by the company warned its executives that the contaminants could be consumed through irrigated vegetables.

None of this was disclosed to Petersen or the other residents of Mapleton, who continued to water their fields and drink from their wells.

Instead, the company continued to quietly study its problem, and strategize about ways to minimize the fallout. Ensign-Bickford hired consultants who outlined the enormous liability the company could face, and the “negative publicity” it would undoubtedly endure depending on how the contamination was made public. “A serious threat exists to the long-term water supply of the city of Mapleton,” read handwritten meeting notes from the Trojan Corp., which Ensign-Bickford owned, dated 1990. The notes said Mapleton would be forced to shut its groundwater wells and could lose a significant portion of its water supply, leading to “media attention, increased pressure from regulatory agencies and potential lawsuits.”

“Trojan Corporation,” the notes state, “faces implication as the probable cause.”

By 1994, the company had tested and documented the existence of RDX in the private wells of Petersen and Ruff, having collected samples under the guise of routine water monitoring, but it still hadn’t informed them of the results, according to the plaintiffs’ statements. (In some documents Ensign-Bickford denies it documented unsafe levels of RDX. The company did not respond to requests for comment.) Trojan was able to keep the contamination secret in part because the EPA’s guidelines for RDX concentrations in drinking water were not a legal, enforceable limit. The agency had never specifically formalized regulation of RDX, and so the pollution was not in violation of the law.

As evident as Ensign-Bickford’s cover-up was, however, Petersen and the other plaintiff families still had to prove that the explosives had made them sick. Petersen’s lawyers built their case not on RDX itself, but by focusing on the chemistry that results as RDX degrades in the ground, and how those unusual compounds are then absorbed into plants consumed as food.

What they found casts new light on the nation’s RDX problem, suggesting that even as RDX fades away, the chemicals in it will remain lethal, perhaps becoming even more so as they break down.

In 1999, the plaintiffs hired a professor specializing in microbiology and epidemiology from the University of Nebraska Medical Center to examine how RDX might be connected to the specific types of cancers found in Mapleton. For years, the doctor, Dennis Weisenburger, had studied how non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma develops and how environmental exposures may play a role in it.

Weisenburger examined the chemical breakdown of RDX into groups including what are called hydrazines, and another called nitrosamine compounds. These descendant compounds can be more prevalent and more dangerous than the RDX itself, he warned. He noted that nitrosamines in particular are “some of the most potent carcinogens.” (Formaldehyde, another breakdown product, has since also been classified as carcinogenic.)

Hydrazines were already classified by the EPA as a “probable human carcinogen” based on animal studies. One related breakdown compound is so potent it has long been used to induce colon cancer in rodents for research purposes, often on the basis that a single dose will cause tumors. Another variation has been specifically linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in mice.

The nitrosamines — and their broader family of related compounds — are more difficult to analyze because there are many, and some are extremely dangerous. More than 300 varieties are believed to cause cancer, Weisenburger noted in his testimony. One type, for example, led to tumors in mice with a single minuscule dose of just one-tenth of a part per billion. The variations derived from RDX are not well studied, but based on his research and published papers, “one should assume that they have carcinogenic potential, until proven otherwise,” Weisenburger wrote.

Both nitrosamine derivatives and hydrazines were found in the water wells of Petersen and the others. And both types of compounds, Weisenburger noted, have been directly linked with the same type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that befell the Mapleton residents.

The Superfund location in Grand Island, Nebraska, where Cornhusker Ammunition Plant once sat. (PHOTO by Aaron Champenoy)

Years earlier — as concerns about residents’ health mounted — Utah’s health department investigated a potential cancer cluster in Mapleton, but concluded that while leukemia cases appeared unusually common, they could not be linked to pollution from explosives. The agency found no apparent cluster of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Weisenburger argued that the state had diluted the sample pool by including an area far away from the Ensign-Bickford plant, and that it had erroneously divided two types of lymphoma into separate categories when they should have been counted as one. He also found that Petersen and Ruff’s cases had not been counted in the study. When he combined the incidents of chronic lymphocytic leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and added in Petersen and her neighbor, the numbers were stark: Mapleton had twice as many cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and three times as many cases of leukemia as would have been expected.

Petersen’s legal team believed that she and her neighbors got their cancers by eating food grown with explosives-saturated water and by drinking that water. For years, researchers, including those working for the Pentagon, had been investigating the potential for plants to absorb RDX and other explosives, often with the goal of using those plants to remediate, or suck the contaminants out of polluted soils. That RDX and its chemical derivatives accumulated in plants and fish was well accepted.

“Plants need nitrogen for protein, just like we do,” said Terry McLendon, a former University of Texas professor of biology and an ecological risk assessor who has worked with the Department of Energy on contamination in plants at Los Alamos, and on other federal projects. “And RDX is a nitrogen-based substance.”

But accumulation in plants also meant that the vegetables concentrate the chemicals and amplify the exposure to anyone who eats them far beyond what it would have been if they’d simply swallowed polluted water. The question was how much did the chemicals accumulate, and how much had Mapleton residents consumed?

The group hired McLendon’s consulting company to find out, and the calculations he presented to the court were striking. Based on previous research, he calculated that a carrot grown with water containing the amount of RDX measured in Petersen’s well, for example, would have up to 286 times as much RDX in it as the water it was grown with. Spinach would contain 55 times as much RDX, the researchers found.

The chemicals are most concentrated in the roots and the leaves of plants. So tomatoes might be less of a risk than lettuce or potatoes. Petersen meticulously accounted for her home-grown diet over the years, calculating that she’d eaten at least one potato, on average, each day since she’d moved into her home, as well as thousands of beans, carrots, squash, cucumbers and more. McLendon calculated that she’d consumed more than 100 mg of pure RDX and its derivatives each year.

The defense team criticized Weisenburger’s and McLendon’s conclusions for making what it described as theoretical leaps beyond what could be proven. But before the case was settled in 2002, the arguments made in the Mapleton lawsuit were subjected to a special kind of scrutiny: The federal district court judge held a so-called Daubert hearing to evaluate the credentials of the experts and the scientific approach they took in offering their testimony. And after weeks of deliberation and an extensive review of the evidence, the judge validated the plaintiffs’ approach, ruling that their experts’ analysis that hydrazines and nitrosamine compounds were likely to cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma were valid, and that the methods used to quantify residents’ exposure were legitimate.

It takes significant evidence to meet that legal standard, said Laurie Ashton, the attorney who represented the Mapleton families. “You can’t just be a crank,” she said.

What appeared to be missing, though, was more conclusive research along the lines of the studies that Levine had done for the Army in 1984, a controlled experiment exposing live mice and rats to RDX doses. Levine, deposed in the Mapleton case, said the Pentagon was extremely unlikely to ever sponsor such a study again.

Ensign-Bickford’s settlement with the six families was for an undisclosed amount of money — Rodney Petersen, Marilyn’s husband, said their share amounted to $1.8 million — but the company did not acknowledge responsibility for any harm they experienced. Marilyn Petersen died of her illness in 2004. Glenn Allman, Charles Bates and Cherie Hunt died before the lawsuit was settled.

“We have seven kids and they were also exposed,” Rodney Petersen told ProPublica during a recent visit to his home near the Spanish Fork Canyon. “So the end of the story may not be written yet.”

The site of the old Cornhusker Ammunition Plant in Grand Island, Nebraska. (PHOTO by Aaron Champenoy)

Cape Cod in Massachusetts depends on one large aquifer for the vast majority of its drinking water. That underground body of water is shaped like a lens, with a high point that approaches the surface at its peak. There, at its most vulnerable, it is separated from the grassy fields and thick woods of the western Cape by a relatively thin layer of porous sand.

Directly above this high point in the aquifer is the 14,000-acre target area of a vast firing range where Army National Guard troops have for decades launched ordnance and munitions, testing their power and precision on the training fields of the Massachusetts Military Reservation.

In the mid-1990s, the EPA discovered RDX in that single source of drinking water, a supply that supports more than 520,000 people during the Cape’s busiest summer months.

The roots of the Massachusetts Military Reservation — as the sprawling 21,000-acre military bases of Camp Edwards and Otis Airfield were called — date back to 1911, when the Cape was remote and far less inhabited.

Now known as Joint Base Cape Cod, the bases have served as critical training grounds for the Pentagon since World War II. The southern half has been overseen by the Air Force, which ran an experimental aeronautical missile program there in the 1960s and classified nuclear missile preparations in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the Army has long used the ranges of the northern base for artillery practice.

The bases also have had confusing lines of ownership and authority. They were once federal land, then were transferred to the state for its National Guard, but with portions, including the test ranges, leased back by the Army. That, in turn, muddled the question of which jurisdiction’s environmental laws apply and who enforces them.

“The net result is an atmosphere in which no one knows who is in charge,” Lt. Col. William FitzPatrick wrote in an analysis for the Army Environmental Policy Institute in 2001.

Serious environmental problems had been a concern at the bases prior to the EPA’s RDX finding. Otis Airfield was declared a Superfund site in 1989. And for decades the people of Cape Cod wondered which environmental blight — from pesticides to smog — might be responsible for high rates of cancers there. In 1991, the Boston University School of Public Health even noted the risk of air pollution around Camp Edwards’ bombing ranges, finding that lung and breast cancers near there were unusually common.

The prospect that the Army’s firing ranges were contaminating the drinking water posed a new problem, one with significant implications. Not only were far more people at risk than in any of the other known cases of RDX groundwater contamination, but in Massachusetts, RDX couldn’t be written off as coming from messy, outdated practices at the nation’s weapons manufacturing sites. It appeared to be coming from active training that was still underway.

One thing stood in the way of the EPA finding out for sure: Because of the continuing Superfund cleanup at Otis Airfield, the EPA and the Army had already legally agreed to the boundaries of the cleanup area long ago, as the law requires. Camp Edwards’ firing ranges and the new RDX contamination lay outside that cleanup boundary. The Army refused to voluntarily expand the boundaries, arguing that the ranges were still active, and that an environmental investigation would interrupt training of troops. The RDX coming from active ranges could be subject to different environmental laws, but those wouldn’t apply until the firing ranges were closed — something EPA lawyers say the Army postponed even for areas that hadn’t seen action in decades — or until the contaminants seeped off the military’s land and actually began dripping out of people’s taps.

As a result, the Army had kept the EPA from testing on the northern part of the base’s ranges for years. And when confronted with mounting concerns about the RDX in groundwater there, the Army sought to keep it that way.

“They were using every argument in the book,” said one EPA official familiar with cleanup effort at Camp Edwards.

Such friction was hardly new. The Pentagon had for years argued that “sovereign immunity” clauses protected the military from prosecution and fines under environmental law. In the spring of 1992, the Supreme Court ruled on a similar argument by the Department of Energy, confirming that the Pentagon was correct; environmental agencies couldn’t fine it for past violations of hazardous waste statutes. The move took the teeth out of enforcement at both the federal and the state level, because without fines there were no consequences for refusing to clean up contaminated sites.

Congress ultimately responded a few months later with the 1992 Federal Facilities Compliance Act, restoring a large portion of the EPA’s oversight authority over federal agencies’ handling of hazardous waste. But it didn’t come easy.

“DOD fought it, for six years, over three Congresses,” said Richard Frandsen, who served as chief counsel for environment issues for the House Energy and Commerce Committee for more than 30 years. “We had all 50 attorneys general, Republican and Democrats, and we finally got it passed.”

Ever since, the relationship between the Pentagon and the EPA has remained uneasy, often dysfunctional.

In 1997, the EPA began pressing the Army to measure the amount of RDX and other contaminants in the groundwater near its firing ranges. EPA officials hoped to identify the source of the contamination and asked the Army to survey its grounds for unexploded munitions. According to an internal EPA document obtained by ProPublica, the “EPA received no meaningful response.”

The EPA didn’t have military expertise or much knowledge of the physics and chemistry of explosives; it depended on Pentagon officials for such information. In what EPA officials viewed as an effort to quell their concerns, the then head of the Department of Defense’s explosive safety board filed a technical memo with the agency promising that the risk of contamination from unexploded munitions was “virtually zero.” The memo said that unexploded shells lying in the ground don’t leak or break, that they are essentially secure “museum quality” vaults of metal. For a short time, the document convinced EPA senior managers that the RDX must have come from a different source, and the agency relaxed its order.

But soon after, EPA lawyers came to believe that the Army had deceived them. Another Army weapons expert told the EPA that the Army had been studying the fate of buried munitions and knew at the time the memo was prepared that unexploded ordnance in fact does break down and ultimately leak its contaminants.

“They knew it was false,” said William Frank, a senior EPA attorney who worked in enforcement over Department of Defense facilities, including at Camp Edwards, for 25 years before his retirement. The technical memo “was given to EPA to influence its implementation and oversight in an enforcement matter,” Frank said. A short while later, Army officials would discover a large quantity of “extremely corroded” ordnance that included a rotten, rusted 155 mm shell on the Massachusetts fields with a hole worn through and raw RDX exposed to the open air.

To federal environmental officials — and even some defense experts — the Pentagon’s efforts at deception and delay seemed to reflect concern over the broader, national implications of the pollution. If RDX was indeed spreading in the water beneath a test bombing range, it meant the scope of the Pentagon’s RDX liabilities across the country could be monumentally larger than previously thought. Munitions containing RDX had been fired on ranges at thousands of American military sites; at many of those sites old unexploded munitions were still strewn across the land, slowly degrading over time.

“They don’t want to get stuck with the bill,” said Rick Stauber, a leading munitions expert who has worked under contract with the Army to identify unexploded ordnance for most of the last three decades, including in Massachusetts.

A few months later the EPA issued a second order forcing the Army to suspend its live-fire exercises while it investigated the groundwater plume. The agency’s regional administrator at the time, John DeVillars, announced in May 1997 that the RDX pollution in the Cape’s aquifer was an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to the public, an unusual declaration that gave the EPA jurisdiction under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the emergency authority to stop dangerous pollution still taking place, regardless of its nature or cause.

DeVillars didn’t mind taking on an interagency battle and was of the mind that “the bigger the opponent, the bigger the fight,” according to colleagues.

His move outraged Pentagon officials, who felt the EPA had overstepped its bounds. Generals and high-ranking EPA officials, including the agency’s assistant administrator, convened in a Pentagon conference room in Arlington to hear the Army’s pleas. But in the end, the EPA upheld DeVillars’ “imminent endangerment” order.

The issue had by then escalated beyond environmental concerns. With the interruption of Army National Guard training, the core missions of the Defense Department and the EPA were colliding. The Army asserted that any restrictions on training would endanger soldiers and compromise national security. If the EPA could disrupt training for environmental reasons in Massachusetts, it could interfere with the Pentagon’s mission anywhere on U.S. soil.

“There was zero trust, and it was because of what I was wearing, the camouflage,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Knott, who ran the Army’s cleanup at Cape Cod once it was underway. “The military is like, ‘We’ve got to train our soldiers so when they go fight, they come home.’ That seems pretty obvious.”

From the EPA’s perspective, the spread of RDX directly threatened the health of the very Americans the Army was fighting to protect overseas.

“They felt like EPA was encroaching on their mission of protecting the country,” said one senior EPA official with knowledge of the clash. “We felt our mission was more important than their mission.”

The environmental testing the EPA had pressed for, in the meantime, had yielded the results the agency had most feared. Nineteen separate groundwater plumes emanated from 10 distinct ordnance targets or gun positions on Camp Edwards, spanning much of the 14,000 acres. RDX levels were as high as 43,000 parts per billion in the soil, 21,000 times greater than the EPA’s advised lifetime human health exposure threshold and four times the highest levels ever detected near Mapleton, Utah. Perchlorate, a rocket fuel, as well as lead, cadmium and other significant explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin and HMX — a byproduct explosive of RDX — were also spreading from the target ranges.

In firing munitions, as many as one in five fail to detonate, and the EPA believed that a significant amount of the contamination was coming from unexploded bombs that eventually leaked their contents. EPA scientists were tracking the plumes as they moved from the base. The drinking water in towns including Mashpee, Bourne, even one day Barnstable were all at risk.

Still, according to internal EPA legal documents, the Army National Guard “was unwilling” to clean up the contamination. The disagreement boiled down to a matter of perception of risk, since the contamination, at the time, remained within the bounds of Camp Edwards.

The resistance was based on concerns that bowing to EPA authority would set a precedent for interrupting military training at sites across the country, as well as fears about what cleaning up the groundwater beneath a site like Camp Edwards might cost, according to several military officials and contractors familiar with the confrontation. A cleanup would be a decades-long process, involving scraping millions of tons of soil off the land, and then pumping water from underground, treating it, and reinjecting it into the aquifer.

Every year, the Pentagon gets $3 billion to $4 billion in funding from Congress to support its environmental work. But that money is specifically targeted for work under the Superfund and hazardous waste laws designated by the Federal Facilities Compliance Act of 1992. When the EPA declared Cape Cod’s water problem an “imminent and substantial endangerment” under the Safe Drinking Water Act, it triggered an entirely different form of response, one that had to be paid for directly out of the base’s operations budget. Cleanup funds were scraped together out of monies meant for the bases’ water and fire services, power generation and maintenance. “Some of these other pieces of the pie were going to get cut back to put the cleanup on steroids,” Knott said.

Story concludes with part 3 on January 31, 2018.

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