Am­mu­ni­tion plant bomb blasts taken in stride

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - NEWS - BY TRI­CIA PEM­BER­TON For The Ok­la­homan

SA­VANNA — When the first bombs det­o­nated on a re­cent week­day, Ra­mona Coats be­gan look­ing for cover. Sa­vanna Pub­lic Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Gary Reeder wasn’t fazed.

“The win­dow panes rat­tled, and the build­ing shook,” said Coats, a fed­eral grants con­sul­tant for Bar­low Ed­u­ca­tion Man­age­ment. “As I walked out of the build­ing, I could see the plumes of black smoke spot­ting the hori­zon. How strange, but the cit­i­zens didn’t even look up. It is amaz­ing how we be­come ac­cus­tomed to our sur­round­ings.”

The lo­cals weren’t both­ered be­cause the blasts are a nearly daily oc­cur­rence from the nearby McAlester Army Am­mu­ni­tion Plant.

The first boom of the day, just after 11 a.m., sounded like thun­der, or fire­works. At the en­trance to the school of­fice, the glass doors blew slightly open. In­side the build­ing, foam ceil­ing tiles and of­fice win­dows rat­tled. Clouds of black dust rose from a field north of town, vis­i­ble through a glass door at the end of a locker-lined hall­way.

Reeder, 62, grew up in Sa­vanna. He’s heard the bomb blasts as long as he’s been alive.

Prin­ci­pal Brad Kel­logg said he’s seen the sus­pended ceil­ing give but never fall. He once had to re­cal­i­brate the old smart board pro­jec­tors after each day’s blast­ing.

Most stu­dents and staffers barely no­tice the ex­plo­sions, but vis­i­tors nearly al­ways are jolted.

“I’ve had sales­men in my of­fice ready to bolt,” Reeder said. “We had a bas­ket­ball camp this week with kids from other places and they were shocked by the blasts.”

North of the school is a line of mo­bile homes with open fields be­hind, where the smoke is more vis­i­ble and the booms louder.

“That’s not smoke in the air, it’s dirt,” said Kevin Jack­son, pub­lic af­fairs of­fi­cer for the plant. “We are de­stroy­ing ob­so­lete, un­ser­vice­able am­mu­ni­tion. We take apart ev­ery­thing from Viet­nam-era clus­ter mu­ni­tions to large ar­tillery shells. We re­use what we can by re­cy­cling com­po­nents, use some for train­ing, but some are so old and un­sta­ble it would not be safe for other uses, so we have a range set up where we det­o­nate and burn them.”

Dur­ing a tour of the plant, in­side a small white bus, Jack­son, Chief of Staff Brian Lott, Busi­ness De­vel­op­ment Of­fice Chief Brian R. Foris and sev­eral phys­i­cal sci­en­tists of­fered a run­down of op­er­a­tions.

“We’ve been blow­ing up old am­mu­ni­tion for al­most 75 years, since the plant opened,” Lott said.

Land mines, blown up be­cause treaties spec­ify that what the U.S. will no longer use in mod­ern war­fare, must be de­stroyed. About 80 per­cent of old ord­nance is re­cy­cled, Lott said, but what can’t be safely dis­as­sem­bled or poses a safety haz­ard is det­o­nated or burned.

The plant also builds bombs, nearly every type in the U.S. in­ven­tory, but no chem­i­cal, nu­clear or bi­o­log­i­cal bombs, Lott said.

In the bomb busi­ness

McAlester has been in the bomb busi­ness since 1943. Orig­i­nally the plant was a U.S. Naval de­pot. In Oc­to­ber 1977, it trans­ferred to the Army.

The largest em­ployer in the re­gion, with about 1,500 peo­ple, it has an eco­nomic im­pact of about $463 mil­lion. It re­ceives no ap­pro­pri­a­tion from the gov­ern­ment and is a Work­ing Army Cap­i­tal Op­er­a­tion, mean­ing it sells prod­ucts to mil­i­tary ser­vices and al­lied na­tions, but as a not-for-profit. It sets rates to break even over a three-year pe­riod, Jack­son said. The plant and its sis­ter in­stal­la­tions across the na­tion re­port to the Joint Mu­ni­tions Com­mand at Rock Is­land Arsenal, Illi­nois.

The vis­i­tor bus takes a wind­ing path into the in­te­rior of the 45,000acre cam­pus to­ward the det­o­na­tion field, pass­ing con­crete bunkers where bombs are built and stored — more than 2,000 ex­plo­sive stor­age fa­cil­i­ties in to­tal.

A 200-plus-mile net­work of train cars helps trans­port the mu­ni­tions over 400 miles of road. The plant is nearly the size of Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Lott said am­mu­ni­tion that is shipped must be blocked and braced. The daily out­put of lum­ber is enough to build 55 av­er­age U.S. homes, he said.

“In the event of a cri­sis, we need to be able to move quickly,” he said.

The heav­i­est pe­ri­ods of mu­ni­tions pro­duc­tion and sup­port to which work­ers at the plant re­sponded were World War II, Viet­nam and Op­er­a­tion Desert Storm/Desert Shield in the Per­sian Gulf.

“We try to play on the road, no home games,” Foris said. “We are all about readi­ness. We are ready to pro­vide the wartime fighter what they need when they need it.”

As the bus ap­proaches the de­mo­li­tion site, deer feed nearby. The state De­part­ment of Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion runs a deer man­age­ment pro­gram on the fa­cil­ity. More than 25,000 peo­ple ap­ply every year to hunt deer on the prop­erty; 1,500 per­mits are al­lowed.

At the blast site, crews of eight de­mo­li­tion work­ers in cover­alls fill 52 pits with old am­mu­ni­tion every day, ev­ery­thing from grenades to Mav­er­ick war­heads no longer used by the Air Force. The crews then cover the pits with about two feet of dirt and line each with Army wire and blast­ing caps. The caps are blown re­motely from a bunker set away from, but in sight of, the det­o­na­tion field.

The dirt cover helps with the noise and fly­ing de­bris.

State per­mits al­low up to 500 pounds of old am­mu­ni­tion to be blown up at a time, but a typ­i­cal blast con­tains 300 to 350 pounds, said Di­rec­tor of Am­mu­ni­tion Op­er­a­tions John Ross.

MCAAP also has closed dis­posal pro­cesses, such as cry­ofrac­ture fa­cil­i­ties and in­cin­er­a­tors, where old am­mu­ni­tion can be de­stroyed, as well as an ex­plo­sives lab.

Keith Clift, di­vi­sion chief of de­mil­i­ta­riza­tion for the Joint Mu­ni­tions Com­mand, said open burn and open det­o­na­tion is the safest method.

“Closed re­quires more han­dling and ex­poses per­son­nel to haz­ards,” Clift said. “Some shape charges will pen­e­trate fur­naces. Still, it’s a risk we some­times have to as­sume be­cause there are things we don’t want to put into the en­vi­ron­ment.”

Clift, who works for the JMC at the plant, said cry­ofrac­ture is ex­pen­sive, but chem­i­cals such as de­pleted ura­nium are dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous to work with, so it’s bet­ter to treat them in a special closed dis­posal de­mil­i­ta­riza­tion process, also known as freeze and crush. Anti-per­son­nel mines also are fed into in­cin­er­a­tors. Other bombs made in the 1960s and ’70s have lead paint and as­bestos.

For most old ord­nance, though, open pit det­o­na­tion works best and is the safest for em­ploy­ees.

Clift said em­ploy­ees who work with ex­plo­sives con­tain­ing cer­tain chem­i­cals are med­i­cally checked every year, and in­dus­trial hy­giene mon­i­tors placed on every em­ployee mon­i­tor ev­ery­thing to which they are ex­posed.

Sev­eral years ago, work­ers at a re­search and de­vel­op­ment fa­cil­ity in Alabama were try­ing to fig­ure out how to re­move a pro­pel­lant from rocket mo­tors to dis­pose of in a closed dis­posal de­mil­i­ta­riza­tion process. It ig­nited and killed two peo­ple. The last fa­tal in­ci­dent in McAlester happened in 1971. Three peo­ple were killed and a build­ing lev­eled when a fur­nace was fed with a large amount of pro­pel­lant.

The plant does ev­ery­thing it can to en­sure em­ployee and pub­lic safety, Lott said. That’s part of why the fa­cil­ity has such ex­ten­sive bound­aries, and why so much is done to test the dirt, air and wa­ter.

The mu­ni­tions are blown up from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mon­day through Satur­day as at­mo­spheric con­di­tions al­low. The set times are so peo­ple in the area know what to expect, Jack­son said. The 52 blasts are sep­a­rated by about 20 sec­onds to al­low for read­ings.

In a con­crete build­ing near the det­o­na­tion site, mon­i­tor­ing is done to en­sure air and wa­ter qual­ity and noise lev­els re­main below promised ranges. Wa­ter qual­ity is con­stantly mon­i­tored, and drones sam­pled the air dur­ing blasts in Oc­to­ber and Fe­bru­ary, part of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency mon­i­tor­ing.

“We want the things we det­o­nate to be gone and not to go back into the soil or ground wa­ter,” said Ana­mari Hol­comb, a phys­i­cal sci­en­tist and wa­ter pro­gram man­ager for the plant.

“Noise seems to im­pact the com­mu­nity the most,” said Bruce Schultz, su­per­vi­sor of de­mo­li­tion op­er­a­tions.

In cold weather, the sound car­ries a long dis­tance. Op­er­a­tions are shut down if noise ex­ceeds 124 deci­bels in McAlester or 128 deci­bels in com­mu­ni­ties such as Sa­vanna and Kiowa.

“Noise mon­i­tor­ing is not re­quired by the state; we do it to be a good neigh­bor,” said Leah Thomas, air pro­gram man­ager.

Lott said the sci­en­tists also study to see what hap­pens in open det­o­na­tion. There’s no seis­mic ac­tiv­ity; it’s re­ally all noise and air dis­place­ment, he said.

Col­lat­eral dam­age?

The U.S. Bureau of Mines did a seis­mic study in 1994 and found “none of the res­i­dences mon­i­tored had been sub­jected to un­safe lev­els of vi­bra­tion or air­blast over­pres­sure, and struc­tural re­sponses did not ex­ceed thresh­old dam­age lev­els.”

Jeremy L. Boak, di­rec­tor of the Ok­la­homa Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey at the University of Ok­la­homa, said there are oc­ca­sional earth­quakes in McAlester, but most are closer to down­town than to the am­mu­ni­tion plant. He said records show no earth­quakes cen­tered at the plant.

Peo­ple in Sa­vanna think the blasts are caus­ing dam­age.

“It cracks the Sheetrock,” Reeder said.

“It tears up your house,” said a woman who did not want her name used.

Mu­nic­i­pal Court Clerk Jody Wilkett said she lives about five miles away and can hear the blasts at home.

“They say the bombs don’t de­stroy your home, but I had a neigh­bor, all the stuff fell off his wall,” Wilkett said. “If you lis­ten to gos­sip around town there’s been a high in­ci­dence of can­cer here too, three to four peo­ple we know just through City Hall.”

That’s out of a pop­u­la­tion of about 700 in Sa­vanna, Wilkett said.

Erin Hat­field, com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for the Ok­la­homa De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity, said ground­wa­ter mon­i­tor­ing wells are across the fa­cil­ity, and pub­lic wa­ter drink­ing sup­plies are reg­u­larly mon­i­tored.

Re­cent re­ports for the drink­ing wa­ter show no vi­o­la­tions. Hat­field said oc­ca­sion­ally there are traces of se­le­nium, ar­senic and/or lead, and ex­plo­sive com­pounds — all seen at very low lev­els in the ground­wa­ter.

“None of the ground­wa­ter is used for drink­ing wa­ter, and the wells in ques­tion are well within the site bound­ary,” Hat­field said. She said air sam­ples were taken and sent for anal­y­sis in the spring, but DEQ does not have any in­for­ma­tion on the re­sults.

The state De­part­ment of Health and the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion show no ab­nor­mal in­ci­dences of can­cer or can­cer clus­ters for the com­mu­ni­ties sur­round­ing or re­lated to MCAAP.

Plant of­fi­cials said they fielded 38 com­plaints in 2016 and 27 in 2017, mostly for noise. That is down from about 50 com­plaints per year be­tween 2007 and 2015.

Lott said the plant is multi­gen­er­a­tional; with many of the cur­rent work­ers com­ing from great-grand­par­ents who worked at the fa­cil­ity. He was born in McAlester, lives about four miles from the plant and has worked there 25 years.

Kelly Billings­ley, who works at the post of­fice, said she can hear the blasts all over town and thinks the cracks in her home come from the ex­plo­sions. Still, she said, many of her rel­a­tives have worked at the plant, in­clud­ing her fa­ther and grand­fa­ther, sev­eral un­cles and sons-in­law. Her mother worked on the bomb line in the 1960s.

Joe Brown, a re­tired Sa­vanna schools su­per­in­ten­dent, has lived right by the plant since 1968. His mother and fa­therin-law lived on prop­erty pur­chased by the mil­i­tary back in the 1940s.

“This plant is the best thing that happened around here as far as peo­ple work­ing,” Brown said.

“This is the best place for a young man if you don’t want to go off and go to school.”


Smoke from the daily det­o­na­tion of de­mil­i­ta­rized am­mu­ni­tion at the McAlester Army Am­mu­ni­tion Plant can be seen from a field in Sa­vanna.

Joe Brown, of Sa­vanna, pauses for a photo as Kelly Billings­ley laughs in the back­ground at the Sa­vanna Post Of­fice.

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