Senior Airman in a face mask tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit.

Open Burn Pits: The Legalized Poisoning of Communities

Last week, one of the largest hazardous waste handlers in the U.S. was given a late December deadline to cease its open burn and open detonation practices (KALB). Located in Colfax, Louisiana, Clean Harbors Colfax (CHC) is the only commercial facility in the country contracted to openly burn millions of pounds of munitions and waste explosives—deemed unsafe for landfill disposal—into the air. At a surface level, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to restrict CHC’s permit seems like a critical win. However, Clean Harbors Colfax’s history of violations and ability to accept and store large quantities of hazardous waste is a concern for residents. 

For years, residents of the low-income and predominantly Black community have complained of “offsite smoke plumes, falling ash, chemical odors and loud explosions that rattle their homes and shake their foundations” and health problems feared to be linked to the constant exposure to the toxic waste fumes (Louisiana Illuminator). These fears have been downplayed by officials who argue the social and economic benefits for the community “outweighed” the potential risks. 


Write to the Guam EPA and local state representatives to end open burning and open detonation in the region.

Sign the petition and join local efforts to ban the practice of open burning by the U.S.

• If you’re a veteran and were deployed near open burn pits, consider documenting your experience with the VA’s Burn Pit Registry

“The debate about risk takes us away from the fundamental issue: There is open burning of hazardous waste,” said Laura Olah, founder of the Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger and Cease Fire Campaign (ProPublica). “We can spend years and billions of dollars trying to quantify what that risk is, but it’s an avoidable risk.”

Colfax’s battle is one of multiple ongoing fights to cease— and provide remedies for—the use of open burn and open detonation across the country, Guam, Puerto Rico, and overseas military bases.   

Open burn and open detonation is the method of destroying excess, unserviceable, or obsolete military munitions and hazardous waste by combustion in an open-air environment. 

It’s the U.S. military’s main method of waste disposal since it’s cheap. Rockets, mortars, missiles, Humvee parts, chemical weapons, and biological waste (like wound dressings and amputated body parts) are routinely disposed of in open burn pits (UC DavisCenter for Progress Reform). The practice releases carcinogenic toxic plumes into the air, soil, and groundwater that have adverse environmental and human health effects. Exposure to the emissions of heavy metals and hazardous waste includes immune and nervous system disorders, cancer, congenital disorders, and respiratory disorders (VA). 

Four decades ago, Congress banned the disposal of hazardous waste through open burns because of the potential health and environmental hazards. However, the Department of Defense and its contractors were exempted until alternate means of disposal were found. Open burn and open detonation is banned in other Western countries like Canada and Germany that have found alternatives to open-air combustion of aging munitions (Newsweek). In 2022, the EPA recognized alternative treatment technologies are available and is reviewing permit exceptions and restrictions. However, they contend that open burn and open detonation will still be needed to treat explosive military waste and pose minimal human and environmental threats (EPAEPA). 

In the 2000s, veterans stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan near open burn pits developed chronic respiratory and cardiovascular problems, neurological conditions, cancer, and weakened immune systems (UC Davis). Civilians downwind of these bases noticed increased birth defects and fertility issues in farm livestock and reported children having dizziness and balance issues. 

In a 2018 interview, Biden says there’s a possible link between his son’s exposure to burn pit smoke during military service and his eventual death from brain cancer (PBS). 
President Biden signed the 2022 PACT Act, expanding health care and benefits for veterans exposed to open burn pits and other toxic substances. Previously, those with respiratory conditions, cancer, and other diseases post-exposure to the open burn pits and hazardous waste while serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries were denied VA disability claims since there was “no diagnosis of the claimed condition” and “no medical nexus between the claimed condition and military” (New York Times). The law doesn’t acknowledge or declare a definite link, but there’s a presumption that the illness is service-related.

The law doesn’t extend to civilians in the states, Guam, or Puerto Rico, who are exposed to the same hazardous emissions and health issues as those who served while going to work, grocery shopping, or playing outside. 

A ProPublica investigative report found at least 51 active open burn and open detonation sites in the U.S. (ProPublica). They are located in residential neighborhoods, near homes, schools, and water sources, and concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color. According to the report, about 40 million acres of land in the U.S. has been contaminated by these burning waste sites and other military-related activities, larger than the size of Floridawhich also has a carcinogenic effect on the rest of the country. 

The Radford Army Ammunition Plant in Virginia is an ammunition manufacturing complex for the U.S. military that annually burns millions of pounds of hazardous waste. The facility has a legacy of violations and contamination, including “mishandling or mischaracterizing its explosive waste and improperly monitoring groundwater” (UC Davis). Since 2001, it’s been ranked as the largest polluter in Virginia, and the surrounding community is considered to have some of the worst air quality in the country. 

Upwards of 53 million people, 17% of the U.S. population, live within three miles of these Superfund remediation sites—uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites (LSU Superfund Research Center). The DoD has spent $42 billion cleaning up military waste sites nationwide as of 2017 (ProPublica). Though residents and organizations in some of these regions have reported military cleanup plans abandoned or reduced despite persistent contamination (CSWAB). And while safer alternatives are available, the military views them as not cost-effective compared to open burn and open detonation. 

But there is no cost limit for clean and safe air, water, and land. We must stand together to ensure that our communities, here and abroad, are not polluted by the remnants of war, violence, and destruction. 

1526 966 Dominique Stewart

Dominique Stewart

Dominique is a writer and editor whose interests lie within the intersections of social justice and culture. She has written and edited for several outlets, including Brooklyn Magazine, The Tempest, and the Broward-Palm Beach New Times. Dominique was the managing editor for a women’s health magazine called Sidepiece Magazine.

All stories by : Dominique Stewart
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