Toxic Fires

Across the Country, Military Sites Burn Hazardous Waste Into Open Air

Virtually every day, the Department of Defense and its contractors burn and detonate unused munitions and raw explosives in the open air with no environmental emissions controls, often releasing toxins near water sources and schools. The facilities operate under legal permits, but their potentially harmful effects for human health aren’t well researched, and EPA records obtained by ProPublica show that these sites have violated their hazardous waste permits thousands of times. Related story.

61 active sites

197 total sites

Superfund Sites

Some of the above sites are also Superfund sites, designating them as among the nation’s most environmentally contaminated sites with the highest cleanup priorities. Based on EPA data, ProPublica has identified at least 35 burn sites with Superfund status, and half of those sites are still active. The total number of Superfund sites may be as high as 54, according to sources in the EPA.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency; Department of Defense; Satellite image by Google Earth.

Nina Hedevang, Razi Syed and Alex Gonzalez, students in the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute graduate studies program, contributed reporting for this story. Other students in the program who also contributed were Lauren Gurley, Clare Victoria Church, Alessandra Freitas and Eli Kurland.

Notes: The data identifying burn sites was compiled internally by EPA staff, and obtained by ProPublica from sources within the agency. ProPublica obtained additional records of violations at these burn sites from 1980 to 2017, identified by their federal hazardous waste permits, through a Freedom of Information Act request. The violation data appears to address the overall handling of hazardous and explosive materials at these sites, not only their burn operations. The EPA declined to answer questions about either list, to confirm the status of the sites listed or to explain them further.

ProPublica also obtained a list of active burn sites from the Department of Defense. In cases where the DOD listed a site’s status as active and the EPA did not, we used the DOD status.

Two active sites in U.S. territories and 10 other sites with unclear or unknown statuses are not displayed. Two other sites, Cornhusker Army Ammunition Plant in Nebraska and Joint Base Cape Cod in Massachusetts, came up in our reporting but were not listed by the EPA and are therefore not displayed.