Air, water pollution from Clean Harbor disposal concerns residents at Colfax

By James Ronald Skains
Journal Correspondent

The severity of air and water pollution caused by the Clean Harbors waste disposal facility in the middle of the piney woods of Grant Parish a few miles north of Colfax was first brought to my attention by a life-long friend, John Richardson. John is a lifelong resident of a cattle and pecan farm about three miles southwest of the Clean Harbors hazardous waste management facility. He also is a retired engineer from the Dresser Industries Valve Plant in Tioga and an LSU graduate.

"We don't know exactly what is going on at Clean Harbors but we do know what is going in the surrounding areas. We have seen a significant increase in chemical related illnesses. We are getting very concerned about contamination of our water system, the explosions and fires coming from Clean Harbors. We are trying to get the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and maybe the EPA to take a close look at what is happening in our neighborhood."

According to published reports, Clean Harbors Colfax conducts open burning of more than 500,000 pounds of munitions, explosives and other waste annually at its facility located about five miles north of the town of Colfax. Colfax employees accept shipments on 18-wheelers filled with the most dangerous explosive toxic waste transported from across the nation. Then they use primitive equipment and chemicals metal trays, diesel fuel and perchlorate to ignite flames by remote detonation. They burn and explode thousands of pounds of poisonous chemicals on a regular basis according to published reports.

Concern by local citizens about what was going on at Clean Harbors mushroomed after a test at an on-site retention pond last June by the Louisiana DEQ found higher than allowable toxins. These toxins included amounts of arsenic, lead, perchlorate and the explosive compound RDX in the pond. Water from this containment pond is ultimately released into small local tributaries that ultimately carry the water to the Red River.

The Clean Harbors Colfax controversy has reached such levels of concern that a Central Louisiana Coalition for a Safe and Healthy Environment (CLASHE) organization was founded.

Brenda Vallee is one of its leaders. Local State Representative Terry Brown has become very active in leading the charge to find out the depths of the alleged problems with Clean Harbors Colfax.

In early September of this year, Rep. Brown wrote a formal letter of concern to the LADEQ expressing his concerns about the Retention Pond and Burn Pad at the Colfax facilities. The Secretary of the LADEQ formally responded: "the LADEQ has directed Clean Harbors to close the Pond (as soon as practicable) in accordance with applicable regulatory standards and to replace the Pond with alternate wastewater treatment system that will provide greater protections to human health and environment."

It has been estimated that closing the Retention Pond and implementing a safer groundwater protection system will take several months. The LADEQ in all their written correspondence and public comments has used the phrase "close the Retention Pond as soon as possible."

Brenda Vallee with the CLASHE organization told the Journal "We want stronger language by the LADEQ. We want the Retention pond closed now, not later or as the LADEQ says, as soon as practicable. We are not advocating shutting the operation down, but we do want an enclosed burning system and a much safer methods to prevent ground water contamination."

The letter received by Vallee from the LADEQ assured Vallee that the LADEQ is "working to address the issues associated with exceedances of Risk Evaluation/Corrective Action Program (RECAP) screening standards in the recently sampled groundwater wells at the facility." \par }{\plain The Burn Pad is where open burning takes place on burn pans. Among the materials openly burned at Clean Harbors Colfax are high explosives, warheads, fireworks, rocket motors, munitions, propellants, shaped charges, detonating cord, nitro-related compounds and un-deployed airbags. All these military equipment hazard waste products are brought to the Clean Harbors Colfax site by truck from around the nation to be disposed of.

Clean Harbors Colfax says in public statements that open burning of the hazard waste products it receives is not a threat to public health. However, the company also said they were researching alternative methods of disposal.

Clean Harbors, Inc. is headquartered in Norwell, Massachusetts not far from Boston. Its revenues in 2015 exceeded $3 billion with a net income of more than $44 million. Clean Harbors operates six business segments in the company. Corporate assets are pegged at more than $3 billion.

In an article about Clean Harbor's operation at Colfax published in the Piney Woods Journal written by Dolores Blalock in 2016, one local citizen had this say about her personal experience with the effects of the Clean Harbors Burn pads "Last January, my daughter and I saw a dark cloud of smoke coming up from the Clean Harbors facility. My daughter and I went to investigate. I drove through the cloud of smoke as it hovered over Highway 471 like a thick fog, an iridescent orange eclipse that obstructed the sun. There was no odor or taste but I experienced breathing and eye irritation. My daughter got a bad headache."

"I realized we were in dangerous driving and breathing conditions. My instinct was to get away quickly. There are serious health problems in my home of four adults, and I'm concerned.

These include heart trouble, thyroid cancer, unusual allergies, rashes, hives, lung and urinary tract problems. My neighbors experience some of the same problems. I have the right to work my farm, which takes a lot of time, without a dark cloud of emissions hanging over my head and settling on my property."

Clean Harbors, Colfax employees accept shipments on 18-wheelers filled with the most dangerous explosive toxic waste transported from across the nation. Then they use primitive equipment and chemicals metal trays, diesel fuel and perchlorate to ignite flames by remote detonation. They burn and explode thousands of pounds of poisonous chemicals.

Clean Harbors Colfax, Louisiana, thermal treatment facility is the only commercial operation in the United States with a significantly diverse RCRA Part B, Subpart X permit. This permit allows Clean Harbors to deliver risk-free management of explosive and reactive waste. Spanning more than 700 acres, the Colfax ordinance and munitions destruction facility provides governmental agencies, DOD, GO/COs, defense contractors, research institutions or anyone with energetic and reactive waste, a proven resource for environmentally compliant destruction and thermal treatment of these materials, according to its website.

Since its inception in 1980 by Alan S. McKim, Clean Harbors has become the leading environmental and industrial service provider and largest hazardous waste disposal company in North America. Since 1980, field service centers have been strategically located across North America to provide emergency response services and perform planned work at customer locations. Clean Harbors, the recognized leader in its industry, has more than 400 service locations providing waste transportation and disposal, laboratory chemical packing, 24-hour emergency response, parts cleaning, and field, energy and industrial services. The Company owns and operates over 50 waste management facilities offering a wide range of disposal options including incineration, wastewater treatment, and landfill, recycling and specialty disposal. Clean Harbors is the largest hazardous waste disposal company and the largest re-refiner of used oil in North America.

This is the first of a planed three part series on the Clean Harbors Colfax controversy. The next articles will take a look at the situation from the eyes of the LADEQ. and another will focus on Clean Harbors operation and plans for the future.