The Bomb That Went Off Twice, Part 1

By on January 17, 2018

The explosive compound RDX helped make America a superpower. Now, it’s poisoning the nation’s water and soil.

By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

It was a secret wartime project, with a code name and an urgent mission: develop a more powerful bomb, one that could be mass produced in time to fend off the German forces ravaging Europe. It was 1940.
B
ritish chemists toiled with a tripod-shaped bond of nitrogen and oxygen molecules linked by carbon and hydrogen they referred to as “research department explosive” — a substance one and a half times as powerful as TNT, but so delicate it had to be mixed with beeswax to be stable and pliable enough to fit into warheads. Even then, it wasn’t good enough. Only 70 tons could be made in a week. Defeating the Nazis would require more.

In 1941, American chemists accomplished what their British counterparts could not. John Sheehan and Werner Bachman, University of Michigan researchers, worked with a team of government scientists to invent a new chemical process that made it possible to manufacture what Sheehan described as “super-explosives.” Best, enormous quantities could be churned out quickly — 500 tons a day, an assembly line for destructive might.

The Americans called the new formula RDX, and it transformed weapons overnight. RDX enabled the bazooka — the world’s first hand-held anti-tank rocket launcher — to pierce armor. RDX was packed into 10,000-pound underwater bombs dropped by British airplanes to blow up German river dams and disrupt the country’s hydropower in the critical Dambuster campaign. It was even surreptitiously soaked into firewood that would later explode in the furnaces of German locomotives.

By many estimates, RDX was critical to victory in World War II. It also spawned the greatest period of military manufacturing — and perhaps the largest arsenal — in the history of the planet. For most of the last 74 years, a single industrial plant in rural Tennessee served as America’s RDX factory and it produced as much as 40 million pounds of white crystalline powder each month that fueled the vast carpet bombing of the Korean peninsula, and then later, America’s involvement in Vietnam.
RDX is “a mighty instrument,” Sheehan wrote, “that may well have transformed the nature of modern warfare.”

But RDX, a powerful triumph of military ingenuity, has had an unwanted second life — as an unusually persistent pollutant poisoning the American homeland.

At bomb-making plants and ordnance testing ranges across the United States, RDX has spread into the soil and contaminated water supplies. The first signs of trouble emerged at Army bomb-packing plants in Tennessee, and then near Grand Island, Nebraska, where drinking water aquifers were found to be contaminated with the explosive. By 1990, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had designated RDX a possible human carcinogen. Near Salt Lake City, people who grew their food with RDX-contaminated water alleged it caused their cancers. Then RDX damage was identified in Virginia, California, and even on one of the East Coast’s iconic vacation destinations, Cape Cod.

The Pentagon nonetheless never stopped manufacturing with RDX or test-firing the weapons made with it on U.S. soil. As a result, the number of bases — and their surrounding communities — that face environmental threats from RDX has only continued to grow. In 2013, for example, residents near Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, who live near a U.S. Army grenade range where more than half the Army’s soldiers train, were told the Army had found RDX in their drinking water wells.

In 2015, the Department of Defense settled a lawsuit after contamination was found in public drinking water 143 miles downstream from the Army’s RDX manufacturing facility in Kingsport, Tennessee. According to the court complaint, the plant was dumping more than 68 pounds of pure RDX directly into the nearby Holston River each day. And just this summer, high levels of RDX were identified in the groundwater on the site of an old missile factory near Los Angeles that was supposed to have already been cleaned up.

In all, previously unreleased federal EPA and Defense Department data obtained by ProPublica shows there is RDX contamination at more than 65 military installations across the country.

Harry Craig, one of the EPA’s foremost authorities on explosives and Defense site cleanups, said RDX was the “number one” challenge facing the EPA’s office of federal facility enforcement. Worse, he said, was the fact that all these years later the scope of the dangers posed by RDX was still “not fully recognized.”

From the first reports of RDX contamination on American soil, the Pentagon has either ignored or actively sought to discount RDX’s threat to public health and the environment, according to ProPublica’s review of thousands of pages of EPA and Pentagon documents and the accounts of more than 23 current and former officials and lawmakers. When confronted with evidence of the risk posed by RDX, the Pentagon tried to get its bases exempted from almost any kind of environmental oversight, Congressional records, transcripts and Pentagon documents show. When that failed, the Department of Defense financed an array of studies that minimize evidence of RDX’s potential to cause cancer and other health problems, and then pressed the EPA to relax its classification of RDX’s cancer threat — and the environmental cleanup standards that are recommended along with it, Pentagon and EPA records show.

“Where they believe their core interests are threatened, they become quite adversarial,” said Robert Sussman, who was senior policy counsel to the EPA in the Obama administration. “The chain of command is behind them and they are able to bring to bear a lot of pressure within the government.”

ProPublica’s broader investigation of the Pentagon’s handling of its environmental liabilities makes clear that denial and avoidance are key elements of a playbook its officials have employed for decades. The Pentagon, for instance, has continued to dispose of munitions with open burning, insisting it is necessary and safe long after other countries abandoned the practice in favor of cleaner methods. And the Pentagon routinely hires private contractors to handle its toxic cleanups, looking the other way or claiming not to be liable when those companies have proven to be incompetent or corrupt.

With RDX, the Pentagon’s long and bitter behind-the-scenes combat with the EPA endures to this day. In 2013, the EPA appeared ready to declare RDX not just a possible, but a “likely” carcinogen, an outcome that would have costly and complex implications for the Pentagon. The Pentagon’s existing obligations to address thousands of contaminated installations are already daunting, with costs that could top $70 billion. If EPA officials were to decide that RDX “likely” causes cancer, it could lead to new regulations and demands for more thorough cleanups, adding significant costs. Some military officials have said those additional costs — several cleanups have cost $1 billion — could cut into spending on weapons and soldiers.

And so over the last four years, the Pentagon has campaigned heavily against any upgrading of RDX’s cancer risk.
The effort appears on the verge of a striking victory — not only avoiding any upgrade of RDX’s cancer risk, but actually leading the EPA to downgrade its estimate of RDX’s cancer potency.

Ronald Melnick, a former senior toxicologist at the National Institutes of Health, has been observing the EPA’s scientific review of RDX and submitted comments to the agency. Melnick said he believes the pressure exerted by the Pentagon through comments and presentations, and the RDX research it has recently funded, have prompted the EPA to reverse a long-held position justified by the scientific findings over decades.

“I was surprised and shocked,” Melnick said about the EPA’s latest assessment.

In an emailed response to questions, the EPA rejected Melnick’s suggestion. “No individual, agency, or stakeholder group has had undue influence in the development of the peer review draft,” a spokesperson wrote, referring to the agency’s chemical assessment process.

In interviews and in emailed questions, four Pentagon officials also said that they believed the Defense Department has acted in good faith. The Army’s director of toxicology, Mark Johnson, rejected assertions that the Army’s research has been motivated by anything other than advancing the science. And Lucian Niemeyer, the assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations, and environment, said in a statement that “the Department of Defense is committed to meeting environmental cleanup requirements while protecting human health, safety and the environment.”

ProPublica’s examination of the battle over RDX lays bare an enduring predicament: The military’s role in protecting America comes at the price of being one of the nation’s most prolific polluters.

“As long as we fight wars and we send men and women into combat, we have an obligation to them and to the country to train them realistically. And one of the costs of that training is to create some environmental damage,” said Alberto Mora, a former general counsel for the Navy, and now a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “I always felt this was a tradeoff that the country needed to make and would want to make.”

Few Americans, though, have any idea such a bargain was ever struck.

The site of the old Cornhusker Ammunition Plant in Grand Island, Nebraska. (PHOTO by Aaron Champenoy)

The U.S. Army began to grasp that its use of RDX could cause enormous problems when it found explosives in the groundwater seeping underneath the fence line of the Cornhusker Army Ammunition Plant, eight miles outside the town of Grand Island, Nebraska.

Cornhusker was run by the Quaker Oats Ordnance Corp., a subsidiary of the cereal company, since it began operating in 1942. With so many American men fighting in Europe, women ordnance workers, or WOWs, built the bombs they dropped. They received crystalline RDX by the trainload, then stirred it in vats mixed with TNT and tamped it into the tops of 5-foot-tall bomb shells destined, as the local newspaper put it, “for Hitler.”

Explosives residue collected on the tables, floors and equipment, and on the workers’ clothing. The dust was hosed down and the clothing laundered before so much accumulated that the waste itself could explode. But wastewater, running in a frothy pink mixture that is a telling sign of the explosives, streamed uncontrolled from the plant’s processing units and was allowed to seep into soil or pool in large, unlined pits dug at some 58 sites across the 19-square-mile property. For more than 30 years, the plant operated this way, its production surging to produce mines and artillery shells for the fighting in Korea and Vietnam.

Then, in 1980, the Army tested the grounds at Cornhusker and found that RDX and other explosives had settled more deeply into the soils than had been understood, reaching the aquifer used for drinking water. The Army knew this was likely not isolated contamination. “Pink water” had been seen running from other Army plants that manufactured ordnance, in states from Tennessee to California. At the Iowa Army Ammunition Depot, residents reported seeing raccoons with dyed fur after the animals had waded in nearby reddened streams.

But if the Army was only starting to come to terms with the physical spread of RDX contamination, it had long known of the compound’s potential toxicity. Army documents show that as early as the 1970s, Pentagon medical experts suspected that RDX might cause cancer, and by 1979 the Army had begun experiments to test the long-term effects of RDX on mice and rats.

Still, even after detecting what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control staff later described in a 1992 report as “high concentrations” of explosives in central Nebraska’s groundwater, the Army kept its problem there quiet. After it idled weapons assembly at the plant in 1981, it continued to let laborers working for a private company that leased part of the property drink from a 4-inch pipe drawing well water at the site.

“All of us drank that water and washed in it, for years and years,” said Dennis Mudloff. He was in his late 20s when he first went to work at the plant in 1981, and he said he felt invincible. He worked around a warehouse called the “nitrate building” — for the explosives that were once processed there.

“We slurped it all day long,” he said of the water.

When the Grand Island newspaper wrote about contamination problems at the base in 1982, the Army minimized the threat and said it could take more than a century for the pollution to reach the city of Grand Island.

A combine harvests corn grown on the former Cornhusker Army Ammunition Plant near Grand Island, Nebraska. Chemicals from decades of operations at the plant contaminated the groundwater beneath it, spreading all the way to the taps of residents of Grand Island.

But what the Army was learning about RDX was more ominous. RDX, it turned out, does not dissolve in water, quickly degrade underground, or cling to soil particles that can keep it in place and limit its spread. Instead of becoming diluted over distance — like many other pollutants — it remains concentrated, and then travels quickly.

“It’s widely used, persistent, and mobile,” said the EPA’s Craig. “It doesn’t go away.”

The Superfund location in Grand Island, Nebraska, where Cornhusker Ammunition Plant once sat. (PHOTO by Aaron Champenoy)

By 1983, the Army’s monitoring of wells at Cornhusker showed that a plume of pollution containing RDX was already stretching over some four square miles from the nitrate building, and like a blot of ink spreading on wet paper, it was bearing down on the 35,000 people who lived in Grand Island at the pace of 827 feet each year.

The Army’s medical researchers had come up with their own estimate for how much RDX might be safe for people, and by 1985 their testing showed that water in more than 236 homes near Grand Island contained as much as three times that limit. The Army quickly agreed to build out Grand Island’s municipal drinking water system, taking hundreds of private wells tapped into the aquifer off line. Residents who lived out of reach of city water were advised to drink bottled water.

For the EPA, warning people away from poisoned water sources wasn’t enough.

The agency, formed in 1970, had struggled in its early years to enforce brand new statutes and regulations meant to protect public health and the environment. But by 1985, the EPA had grown muscles, and was newly empowered with a broad array of enforcement powers — hazardous waste laws, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and more. It didn’t take long for the EPA to realize the military’s role as environmental offender.

The Pentagon, the agency learned, was responsible for legions of disastrously contaminated sites across the country, sites that by sheer number would soon dwarf the liabilities of any other single entity. There were the artillery testing grounds, packed with unexploded ordnance; the chemical weapons ranges; and the rocket fuel and airplane sites, saturated with solvents and fire retardants. The damage at the sites was so serious that in 1984 the EPA amended the rules of its Superfund cleanup program — the powerful 1980 law that allows federal authorities to take jurisdiction over the highest-priority contamination sites in the country and mandate their cleanup — to include military sites. Then it listed 36 of them.

The emboldened EPA added Cornhusker’s RDX groundwater plume to its list of federal Superfund sites in 1987.
RDX’s threat as a powerful neurotoxin affecting brain and nervous system development was at the same time becoming better understood. American troops in Vietnam had experienced epileptic fits when they ate C-4 explosives containing RDX as a sort of gruesome initiation rite. A Chinese medical journal reported that a person who accidentally ate RDX had died. Then five RDX factory workers in Tennessee also succumbed to seizures after being exposed to high levels of RDX in dust. And in 1986, researchers in Arkansas reported on a 3-year-old child who had violent seizures after he was exposed to RDX on his mother’s work boots.

But it was the experiments the Army had begun to conduct on mammals in 1979 in a medical research lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland, that raised the strongest warnings about what long-term exposure to the explosives could mean. That year, the Pentagon had toxicologists feed high doses of RDX to rats and mice. Then they watched the animals’ response over a period of two years.

This type of research had rarely been done and it posed a question that had no simple answer: How much RDX exposure was too much? Given the potential enforcement powers of the EPA, and the severity of the pollution, “they needed to establish permissible levels in drinking water,” one of the studies’ authors, Barry Levine, said later in a court deposition.

The Army experimented on 850 animals. Of the mice receiving larger doses, roughly half died — so many that researchers lowered the maximum dosage midway through the test. Before they died, as the dosage increased, the RDX made the rats and mice agitated and aggressive, so much so that it became difficult for researchers to differentiate between the lesions — on genitals, eyes and organs — caused by RDX poisoning and those resulting from fighting in the cages. The hearts of the animals became enlarged, and their eyes grew discolored, then opaque.

But it was the response among the female mice that drew the most concern. Of the animals receiving moderate to heavy doses of RDX, one in six had grown tumors on their livers, roughly half of which were malignant — a “statistically significant” and worrisome sign that RDX could mutate genes and cause cancer in people. There was also evidence that both male and female mice developed carcinomas — cancerous tumors — in their lungs.

The studies were never peer reviewed or published. But after the Army shared its final reports with the EPA in 1984, work described as “the gold standard of research” by one EPA scientist, the agency intensified its oversight of explosives pollution.

In 1990, the EPA classified RDX as a “possible human carcinogen,” a formal warning that a contaminant is potentially dangerous and deserves more study. It also revised its suggested limits for how much RDX was safe in water, determining that the level the Army had applied at Cornhusker was 17 times too lenient. Instead, the EPA suggested that only two parts per billion of RDX was safe, giving it a danger score stricter than other deadly pollutants, including benzene and the herbicide atrazine.

Residents of Grand Island believe the growing awareness about RDX came too late. Mudloff began experiencing health symptoms his doctors could not explain. First, he became chronically fatigued. Hanging Christmas lights would lead him to wheeze. Then even minor math — addition and subtraction — proved difficult.

“My mind was getting worse. I could not think,” Mudloff said. Even the Mayo Clinic, which he visited in 2008, was stumped. Then a neurologist diagnosed myoclonus, a spasmodic, jerky contraction of muscles that has forced him to walk with a cane. Still, the diagnosis could not account for what was happening to his brain, or the sluggishness of the muscles in his tongue, which makes him speak as if he’s had a stroke. Mudloff’s doctor blamed his illness on his exposure to military explosives including RDX.

Mudloff’s former co-workers and neighbors, he said, have fared worse. One by one, he said, the men he worked with in the 1980s took disability, suffering from exhaustion and odd mental degradation. One died of kidney cancer, another of lymphoma. These illnesses were never tied to RDX or any other pollution — no one investigated them. But they put the town on edge.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the CDC, came to Grand Island to examine widespread reports of illness across the city. It couldn’t pin health effects directly to RDX. The agency’s report was inconclusive about the ways people were exposed, and ambiguous about when and for how long.

But the agency did declare that the pollution posed a serious health threat and made public a new element of the threat: The explosives were likely making their way to people not only via local water supplies, but through meat, fish and produce.
About an hour south of Salt Lake City, the Wasatch Mountains transition from rugged peaks to a sloping field of sediment, forming a fertile plain outside the small city of Mapleton, Utah.

There, in the mid-1990s, Marilyn Petersen was planting a garden of squash and beans and tomatoes. Petersen was a member of Mapleton’s city council, and would later become its mayor. At home, she was an avid gardener, tending a large plot outside her stately brick, nine-bedroom ranch home on a quaint country lane lined with aspens and pearly white fences. The neighborhood was wealthy — full of estates with swimming pools and stables and dazzling mountain views. But many of the residents shared a more humble practice: They grew their own food.

Neither Petersen nor her neighbors knew what RDX was at the time. Nor did she know that for the 15 years since she had purchased her home, the water she drank and used to irrigate her plants contained enormous amounts of it — far more of it than was considered safe.

Where the Spanish Fork Canyon spills into the Utah Valley, a short ways south of Petersen’s property, the Trojan explosives plant had been either manufacturing or recycling bomb material since the 1940s. Its latest owner — Connecticut-based Ensign-Bickford — was the recipient of more than 1,600 contracts with the Department of Defense, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

For at least 20 years — and probably for decades longer — the Trojan plant discharged its waste, including pure RDX, pink water and nitric acid, into ponds and an unlined ditch running downhill from the plant. Near the facility’s outfall, an irrigation canal cuts north along the foothills, using gravity to route Spanish Fork river water north past Mapleton so the river can be tapped by farmers throughout the valley. The water carried RDX, and other chemical compounds associated with or derived from it, toward Mapleton and into the groundwater aquifer beneath Petersen’s property, according to plaintiff’s experts in a lawsuit neighbors filed against Ensign-Bickford.

Petersen began eating vegetables grown on farmlands that had been flood irrigated with water from the ditch in 1980, and drilled a new well into the polluted aquifer in 1983. In 1984, at the age of 41, she was found to have stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system.

Soon after, three of her neighbors received the same diagnosis. There was Charles Bates, who lived a block south, and Howard Ruff, a nationally known investor who had advised Presidents Carter and Reagan, who lived six blocks to the east, and Glenn Allman, a Brigham Young University professor, who lived two miles north. A similar cancer that affects white blood cells was diagnosed in Cherie Hunt, who lived two blocks southeast, and 17-year-old Stacy Broadbent, two blocks to the southwest, was found to have lymphoblastic leukemia. Besides being members of the same privileged community, they all grew their own food and they all lived less than 1,500 feet from the irrigation ditch.

For 13 years, Petersen fought her cancer, charging through rounds of chemotherapy and enjoying brief respites of remission only to see her illness rage back. The suspicion that the Trojan explosives plant might be to blame emerged over time. Anecdotally, cancer in the area seemed to be on the rise. The Trojan plant itself had had a reputation for problems — explosions, a deadly accident and a large spill in 1986 that made the local newspaper.

Then, in August 1997, Petersen received a letter from Kendall Robins, Ensign-Bickford’s manager at the Trojan plant, explaining that the company had found significant levels of RDX in the local aquifer. “Please don’t be alarmed,” Robins wrote, assuring her that the levels detected were safe. But if “you use the water from your well for culinary purposes, we ask you to contact us immediately.”

Petersen and the five other families ultimately sued Ensign-Bickford — filing two separate cases — in federal court, blaming the company for their cancers. In the years before the cases were settled, extensive and acrimonious court proceedings hashed out the most thorough investigation into the chemistry and dangers of RDX ever completed. The records from Petersen’s case — including her account, internal Ensign-Bickford documents, and extensive expert testimony — provide a rare window not just into what happened in Utah, but the possible liabilities the Pentagon faced at RDX-contaminated sites elsewhere.

It turns out that Ensign-Bickford, and the companies that operated the Trojan plant before it, were well aware that they had caused extensive groundwater pollution years before they told Marilyn Petersen, and before she ever drew a sip or sprinkled a drop from her well.

Story continues with part 2 on January 23, 2018.


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