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Shea-Porter Amendment Seeks to Study Pollution from Military Burning Old, Obsolete Ammo

Peter Biello/NHPR

When the military and its contractors need to get rid of old or obsolete bullets and bombs, they sometimes burn them. This releases chemicals like lead and mercury into the environment, and people living nearby could be exposed to them and get sick.

Now, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, New Hampshire Representative Carol Shea-Porter has added a provision ordering a study of the practice, which is known as open burning and open detonation of munitions.

Members of the House are taking a serious look at that provision today.  Congresswoman Shea-Porter joined All Things Considered host Peter Biello to discuss the measure. 

(Below is a lightly edited transcript of the broadcast.)

So you're calling for a study of what's happening. How dangerous is this practice?

Well, it's very dangerous. And when you think of how much they have dumped into the air - at one facility in Louisiana they burned 1.7 million pounds of hazardous waste in open air in just one year. And the 61 active burning destination sites that are operating around the United States. And it releases all kinds of dangerous toxins: lead, mercury, chromium. All of these things are health hazards. We know that, and we know it affects the soil and the groundwater and the air. So it's very disturbing and we need to do something about this.

Has this taken place in New Hampshire or is it happening now?

No, I don't see any sign of that in New Hampshire. I've looked at the map and we've got a large number of sites that are going to need some work. But New Hampshire does not seem to be impacted by this.

Why is this issue so important to you?

I care very much about lung health. I have always cared about that. So this is just a natural concern, but also, I was a military spouse, so the exposure to any kind of unnecessary danger you know, for our soldiers and our veterans, is just infuriating. It shouldn't be that way. We need to protect the men and women who protect us. And so I feel pretty passionate about that.

Certainly this is not limited to just people in the military because there are people who live downwind of these sites.

Absolutely. Their families and also the communities that live near them and so many of the federal personnel who work in these facilities, and work on these grounds are also impacted. So it's a large health concern. You couldn't do this. I couldn't do this in my backyard if I released any of this in my backyard. I would see somebody show up immediately. And yet this has been tolerated.

What practical effect do you think a study of this practice will have on the practice overall?

It will have a big impact, just as when we went to get rid of the toxic burning at the burn pits, it took time. You first have to direct them to do that. But it will have a big impact because what will happen is it will then be reported back to committee and then committee will take action. That's how it generally works. You look at something, you require the study, it comes back to the House Armed Services Committee and then the next steps, you know, for legislation to fix it or some remedy. So this will hopefully have a good outcome. And at the minimum what we've done now, and I want to say that this is a result of good journalism. You know we became aware this through ProPublica, who did great journalism looking at all of this. But what will happen now is this will be on everybody's radar screen.

ProPublica also reported that the Department of Defense and its contractors already routinely violate existing regulations on how they're required to do this. What penalties are imposed for these violations and are they enough?

Well, clearly the fact that there have not been any consequences for these contractors that improperly disposed of this material proves that we need more oversight. And so I actually am going to be writing a letter to Department of Defense and asking - complaining about the lack of contact oversight and asking the Office of Inspector General for duty to to do a study and to look into this. 

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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