FAIRLAWN — Bill Laws patrolled the banks of the New River on a recent chilly Thursday morning amid wisps of smoke and the slight smell of spent fire.

Laws is the explosive waste chief operator at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant, and his work burning up to 500,000 pounds a year of munitions waste in the open air about 44 yards from the water has drawn criticism and concern.

But two pilot studies supported by Virginia Tech’s Environmental and Human Health in Rural Communities committee recently found good news: A look at air and soil downwind of the burn site suggests that metals, such as lead, and volatile organic compounds, such as benzene, don’t migrate off site in quantities that threaten human health.

“Our look here is at heavy metals. Linsey added some organic compounds. Of course, we can’t rule out other chemicals,” neuroscientist Chris Thompson said. “But it doesn’t appear to be an issue.”

For Laws and Lt. Col. James Scott, Army commander of the sprawling propellant factory, the findings are evidence that rigorous attention to safer burns and testing on-site emissions is protecting people and the land. This year, the arsenal also replaced its coal-fired power plant with a cleaner-burning natural gas facility and reduced the amount of open-burned waste by more than 40 percent.

“We can always do better, and we’ve committed to our community that we’re going to do better,” Scott said. “And we’re leading the Department of the Army in our efforts, so we’re proud of what we’re doing.”

For neighbors like Simone Poirier-Bures, who has lived in view of the arsenal for 30 years and has been involved in calls for more transparency and less pollution, the studies are a good step forward.

“I think this is great, that this was unbiased research that was done,” she said.

Source of pollutants

For 77 years, the Radford arsenal has produced gunpowder for ammunition and propellant for artillery and rockets for national defense. One of a number of munitions plants built in the hasty run-up to American involvement in World War II, today the plant is the nation’s only remaining propellant-maker. More than 90 percent of military munitions and commercial ammunition trace part of their manufacture from the plant.

Owned by the U.S. Army and operated by private contractor BAE Systems, the arsenal employs about 2,500 people on 4,800 acres in Montgomery and Pulaski counties and an 1,800-acre site near Dublin, Scott said. The plant has a medical clinic, generates its own electricity, treats its own water, manages industrial waste and rents space to 15 private companies. The staff organizes annual deer hunts for wounded veterans, and the plant holds fishing rodeos for disabled children.

But for decades, environmental activists and some residents have questioned the safety of the open burning, which disposes of materials that are dangerous to burn in a closed incinerator. The plant is allowed to burn up to 8,000 pounds a day outside, but actually does much less, Scott said.

The arsenal is regularly listed as a top polluter in the state for its high levels of permitted emissions, from air pollution to nitrates released into the New River, which flows around the larger site. Occasionally, the arsenal exceeds the limits. In 2017, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality fined the arsenal $200,000 for air quality violations.

In the past, critics have said they felt stonewalled by arsenal leadership, and there has been seeming resistance to independent pollution testing. Poirier-Bures said she became worried about the health of her family and her neighbors a few years ago. She circulated petitions and went to public meetings, which were often tense and sometimes hostile.

“There was a sense that they were being defensive, and that they weren’t telling the whole truth,” Poirier-Bures said. “So there was, I think, a lot of suspicion on both sides, really.”

Residents worried about the old coal-fired power plant and the open burning. They fretted over nitrates released into the New River and potential risks to their well water.

A 2015 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry report on groundwater issues found no off-site contamination, but described the lack of air tests as “a data gap in the assessment of community exposures.”

Floating on air

In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. National Science and Aeronautics Administration and the University of Dayton performed drone sampling of 33 smoke plumes at the burn site.

According to Marr, the Tech air pollution researcher who is familiar with the drone tests, the results were used to calculate an emission factor — a number that when multiplied by the amount of waste burned calculates the total emissions to the atmosphere.

The drone test looked at levels of 12 metals, and four of them — arsenic, cadmium, lead and silver — were higher than previously assumed, Marr wrote in an email. The rest were lower than expected. But that testing “does not tell you what the resulting concentrations are in air,” she wrote. “We need the concentrations to estimate exposure to humans and health effects.”

So her team, including research scientist and area native A.J. Prussin, designed a study to measure concentrations of compounds in air downwind of the burn site.

“I’m from Blacksburg, and I’ve been hearing about [the arsenal’s pollution] my whole life,” Prussin said. “As scientists, one of our big jobs is addressing concerns in the community. As a father of two young children, I was concerned about their possibly being exposed.”

Over a few weeks in June and July, Marr’s lab collected 40 samples from monitors placed at four sites within three miles of the open burning ground and analyzed them for arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, copper, nickel and lead, as well as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes.

Using wind pattern data, the team chose Tech’s Kentland Farm, two private residences and the arsenal visitor’s center as likely places for pollutants to show up and set up high-tech monitors. Then they compared the concentrations found in the samples they collected to a range of federal health-based standards.

The highest concentration of lead sampled was .02 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The National Ambient Air Quality Standard sets the standard of concern for human health for lead at .15 micrograms per cubic meter, according to the report. Concentrations of the other heavy metals fell at least 200 times below occupational standards.

Similarly, levels of volatile organic compounds measured were “at least 30 times lower than EPA’s Inhalation Reference Concentrations,” the report stated.

The air study cost an estimated $15,000, with funding coming from Virginia Tech and Marr’s research discretionary fund.

The arsenal purchased three $4,000 computerized air monitors for Marr’s study and provided sampling materials, said Len Diloia Jr, air compliance manager for the arsenal. The monitors have since been moved to the plant and will continue to sample for pollutants through the end of the year. The effort costs about $3,500 a month.

So far, Diloia said the monitors have shown the same on the plant grounds as they did in the surrounding areas — zero to very low concentrations.

Probing the soil

Virginia Tech neuroscientist Chris Thompson took a more down-to-earth approach for his companion study of heavy metals in soils downwind of the burning ground.

Normally, he studies the effects of toxins, such as lead, on the body’s ability to manufacture thyroid hormones, which are crucial for fetal development during pregnancy. Deficiencies can lead to severe birth defects in babies, such as microcephaly, a condition in which the brain and head are much smaller than normal.

In his nearly three years at Tech, Thompson said he hadn’t heard of the community worries over the arsenal’s burning of waste propellant. But if lead contamination were a possibility, it might dovetail with his research on thyroid hormone. To find out, Thompson collected soil samples from 32 sites over about a seven-mile area east of the burn site during two months this summer. The samples were sent to Tech soil scientists for analysis for lead, cadmium, copper and arsenic.

The upshot: All the samples tested well below U.S. and U.K. standards for remediation. In the U.S., playgrounds are considered safe with lead levels below 400 milligrams per kilogram of soil. In the U.K., it’s considered safe to grow produce for household consumption at levels up to 200 milligrams per kilogram. The two study sites around the arsenal with the highest lead levels measured just over 100 milligrams.

But Thompson didn’t stop there. He decided to use what scientists call a “bioindicator.” Tech’s College of Veterinary Medicine collected blood from 15 cows that graze the university’s Kentland Farm downstream from the arsenal. Cattle are likely to breathe in soil, which can contain lead. If lead was present in their environment, the cows’ blood would show it, Thompson said.

Two of the animals tested positive for lead at about 2 micrograms per deciliter of blood, or “2.5 times lower than blood lead levels that are considered to be levels of concern in children,” according to the study. American adults typically have four times that amount of lead in their blood. No lead was detected in the other 13 cow samples.

“Soil is the only indicator we have that would look back over years,” Thompson said. “Cows would serve over a couple of years.” Marr’s study of the air around the arsenal is a real-time snapshot, he added.

Thompson donated his labor and time. Materials and analysis for the study cost $5,637 and were paid for by a university grant.

Improving relations

Research scientist Prussin, who encouraged the committee to undertake the studies, said that finding no dangerous pollutant levels has eased his worries. He also stressed that the studies were not commissioned by the arsenal, and so are truly independent.

Scott and his team also are encouraged by the results, which the commander stressed are similar to results from the staff’s on-site testing.

Poirier-Bures, the arsenal’s neighbor, said she’s heartened by the closing of the coal-fired plant and the study results. But she still questions if the government limits on pollution are strict enough, particularly on nitrate levels in the river.

The commander, Scott, points out that the arsenal must count and report every pound of nitrate it releases, while many polluters do not. Nobody is regulating the amount of nitrate that runs into streams and rivers from golf courses, universities or farms, he said.

And Scott said his team will continue to improve. New production processes set to begin soon will reduce the plant’s water needs and nitrate output and open burning will be further reduced. He said money for a proposed $75 million to $150 million closed incinerator that will burn up to 95 percent of munitions waste has been federally approved. Once begun, the project could take up to 34 months to complete.

One of the biggest changes has been in the relationship between the arsenal and its critics. Scott invited skeptical community members onto the property for a tour in June. Public meetings are held more often, and Scott has directed his staff to look for ways to reduce their impacts.

In the past, “it was just aggressive,” Scott said of the relationship. “But I tell you, now we’ve built a partnership together.”

Poirier-Bures felt similarly.

“I did get the sense as time went on that they were genuinely trying, or at least that they were making some improvements,” she said. “And they were reaching out more.”

A public meeting with arsenal staff to “discuss modernization and environmental programs” is set for 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 13 at the Christiansburg Library. Questions can be submitted in advance to usarmy.radford.peo-eis.list.rfaap-public-affairs@mail.mil.