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The sites of open burns — including those operated by private contractors and the Department of Energy — have led to 54 separate federal Superfund declarations and have exposed the people who live near them to dangers that will persist for generations.

In Grand Island, Nebraska, groundwater plumes of explosive residues spread more than 20 miles away from the Cornhusker Army Ammunition Plant into underground drinking water supplies, forcing the city to extend replacement water to rural residents.

The limits are established using layers of modeling that can be highly speculative and that often bear little resemblance to the day-to-day reality of a place like Radford.

“They say look, these emissions factors show this stuff is pretty much harmless,” said Charles Hendrickson, a senior EPA remediation project manager who deals with burn sites.

Local communities — from Merrimac, Wisconsin, to Romulus, New York — have protested them.

Consider Radford’s permit, which expired nearly two years ago.The Pentagon defends its use of open burns, saying they are legal, safe and conducted at far fewer sites than they used to be.The EPA, the Pentagon says, has drawn up acceptable emissions levels, and has issued permits accordingly.“It smells like plastic burning, but it’s so much more intense,” said Darlene Nester, describing the acrid odor from the burns when it reaches her at home, about a mile and a half away. “You think about all the kids.” Internal EPA records obtained by Pro Publica show that the Radford plant is one of at least 51 active sites across the country where the Department of Defense or its contractors are today burning or detonating munitions or raw explosives in the open air, often in close proximity to schools, homes and water supplies.The documents — EPA Power Point presentations made to senior agency staff — describe something of a runaway national program, based on “a dirty technology” with “virtually no emissions controls.” According to officials at the agency, the military’s open burn program not only results in extensive contamination, but “staggering” cleanup costs that can reach more than half a billion dollars at a single site.

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