Ammunition plant bomb blasts taken in stride
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.
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.