Military Exemption Helps Save Bill To Ban Open Burning

2 May 2016

Fort Leavenworth is known for its prisons, and an Army attorney from there nearly locked up House Bill 11.

The Army’s opposition to the bill was defused when Rep. Terry Brown, co-author of the bill that would prohibit open burning and open detonation of explosives and munitions in Louisiana, amended the bill in committee to satisfy the military.

The bill, as amended, was approved Wednesday in a 9-8 vote by the House Committee on Natural Resources and Environment. It next goes to the full House for consideration.

Brown, I-Colfax, had already agreed to amend the bill so that the ban on open burning and open detonation would not apply to Fort Polk, which conducts such operations at the Army base in Vernon Parish. He went a step further by amending the bill so that it would not apply to the military and to State Police anywhere in the state.

That led Army attorney Stanley Rasmussen, who is based at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to drop the Army’s opposition to HB 11.

“At this time I would say that my (red) card would go to green because at this point the Army and Department of Defense have no objection to this bill as amended,” Rasmussen said after the amendment was approved by the committee without objection.

Before the meeting, he had filled out a red card to show he wanted to speak against the bill. A green card indicates support for a bill.

Brown’s approval of the language change for the bill appeared to be a key factor in winning committee approval, given the narrowness of the vote and legislators’ strong support for the military.

Central Louisiana Chamber of Commerce President Deborah Randolph said the Chamber had asked the bill’s authors to amend it to exempt military installations in Louisiana.

Without that exemption, the Chamber would have opposed HB 11, she said.

“We are committed to being supportive of Fort Polk as well as the mission of the National Guard with its large presence in our community, as we are to all of the military installations through Louisiana,” Randolph said.

“We will not oppose the bill now that it’s been amended. We will watch to make sure that language stays in the bill as it goes through the process.”

The Chamber is not taking a stance on the bill as amended.

“We want to respect the residents of Grant Parish to seek a remedy to their concerns with the bill,” Randolph said.

Although the amended HB 11 would not impact Fort Polk and other military operations, it would have a major impact on Clean Harbors Colfax, which burns about 540,000 pounds of toxic waste annually, including explosives and munitions, at its site about 5 miles from the town of Colfax.

Rasmussen is a land-use and environmental attorney for the U.S. Army. At Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he is director of the Regional Environmental & Energy Office for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment.

His duties include monitoring regulations and legislation that could affect the Army a nine-state region, including Louisiana.

He told committee members that he has been tracking HB 11, and “I came here today originally to say that I was opposed to this bill.”

But amendments to the bill — including the specific wording that Rasmussen suggested during the committee meeting that was agreed to by Brown — had him withdraw his opposition.

Brown had already amended the bill to allow an exemption to open burning of explosives and munitions “on a military installation or by the State Police.” At Rasmussen’s request, that was changed to allow an exemption “by the military or by the State Police.”

Military personnel sometimes must dispose of explosives at non-military sites, he said, and that can be safer in some circumstances than transporting the explosives to a military facility for disposal.

“In the years 2012 to 2015 … the explosive ordnance detachment, which is a DEQ-permitted operation at Fort Polk, was asked to go off-site, out into the public, 93 times and help deal with explosive materials and clean those up,” Rasmussen said.

“Some of those could be safely brought back to Fort Polk and disposed of there. Some of them are so dangerous you need to detonate them in place. I don’t think you want to pass a bill that could jeopardize being able to do that, so I would encourage you to change the bill.”

Brown immediately agreed to the amendment to exempt the military and State Police anywhere in the state. The amendment was accepted by the committee without objection, leading Rasmussen to drop Army opposition to the bill.

Brown co-authored HB 11 with Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Minden, who was part of the successful citizens’ movement to stop the planned open burning of about 16 million pounds of M6 propellant at Camp Minden.

Those opposed to such open burning says the disposal method releases toxic waste into the air that settles in soil, water, plants and crops, animals and humans.

Clean Harbors Colfax representatives say the open burning taking place there, with strict restrictions of wind and other conditions, is not harmful to the public.

Clean Harbors executive Phillip Retallick, who spoke against the bill during the committee hearing, found the military exemption to be curious.

“It seems to us to make no sense to exempt the military operations if they’re doing the same thing we are” and have the same type of permits, Retallick said following the hearing.

He is hoping the full House will reject HB 11 after members learn more about the issues. He said Clean Harbor Colfax has a sterling record of compliance with Department of Environmental Quality and Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

DEQ officials at the committee meeting said Clean Harbors Colfax has not been cited for violations.

Brown asked DEQ officials at the hearing if DEQ personnel take soil and water samples at the Clean Harbors Colfax site. When a DEQ official answered, “We’re not the ones who do the sampling …,” Brown — in the fashion of an attorney questioning a hostile witness — quickly said, “No more questions, thank you.”

Mike Couch, a Baton Rouge toxicologist hired as a consultant by Clean Harbors, told the House committee that he has reviewed more than 80,000 pieces of data from monitoring at the Colfax-area facility and has not found any threat to public health.

Proponents of HB 11 said open burning is causing health problems in the surrounding area. The types of chemicals released through the open burning can result in cancer, brain underdevelopment in children and other maladies.

Frances Kelley of Shreveport, who represents Louisiana Progress Action, told committee members that the open burning at Clean Harbors Colfax is violating federal regulations because such burning is only exempted when there is no alternative.

After the meeting, Kelley said, “I’m pleased (HB 11) is moving forward. I wish we didn’t have to have the amendment … exempting the military.”

Nationally, most of the open burning of hazardous waste occurs on military facilities, Kelley said.

Still, she said, HB 11 would “definitely help in Louisiana” by preventing open burning of munitions and explosives by private companies such as Clean Harbors Colfax.

Brown and members of Central Louisiana Citizens for a Clean and Healthy Environment, which formed in Grant Parish in response to the open burning, would like to see Clean Harbors Colfax use a closed-container chamber used for waste disposal of toxic materials. They note that such a method is being used to dispose of the M6 at Camp Minden.

Brown said the cost of such a specialized incinerator is about $28 million and that Clean Harbors can afford it.

Retallick said the company is open to alternative disposal methods at Clean Harbors Colfax, but they need to be “commercially demonstrable.”

The company is closely watching the Camp Minden operation, which began tests of the burn chamber in mid-April, as it studies potential alternatives to open burning, he said.


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