CAMP MINDEN — There’s hardly a person who doesn’t recall the unusual sound and accompanying vibration in Minden and the surrounding area the night of Oct. 15, 2012. Later, residents would learn a bunker in which munitions propellant was stored had exploded at Camp Minden.
The blast, which destroyed one of 97 underground storage bunkers, was powerful enough to knock over a locomotive and several freight cars parked on a railroad track a short distance from the bunker. Damage to homes and buildings, mostly broken windows, was reported in Minden, Doyline, Sibley, Dixie Inn and Haughton.
A little over two years later, while state and federal officials continue to haggle over the best method to remove between 15 and 20 million pounds of M6 propellant from Camp Minden, that 2012 explosion remains on people’s minds. Worst-case scenarios found in Facebook groups paint a picture of mass destruction if the propellant becomes unstable and then ignites.
Some believe it’s only a matter of time before the M6 detonates. Discussion, especially on Facebook, leads readers to believe the next explosion will take out all the millions of pounds of the propellant, and a large part of the surrounding area will go up in smoke.
But are those assertions accurate?
“I believe the potential danger is more what might be released into the air by open pit burn than the possibility of a catastrophic explosion,” State Representative Henry Burns, R-Haughton, said. He also serves 15 percent of Camp Minden; Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Minden, represents the other 85 percent.
Burns knows more than a little about munitions, with literal “hands-on” experience dealing with explosives. A retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel, Burns served three and a half years at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland in Explosive Ordinance Disposal and later as an instructor with the U.S. Navy station.
For another three years, Burns was stationed in Hawaii as special weapons (nuclear) officer and received the Army Commander Medal for his efforts. He is also the recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal, the highest peacetime medal for performance of duty.
“M6 is a propellant, not an explosive. There are different types designed to do certain jobs. It’s not designed to explode, although it does burn very fast,” Burns said. “However, if you encapsulate it, in large bulk, where it can have its own containment, it can explode.”
Bunkers now house the propellant, and Burns said the design of those units should act as a reflector and redirect any explosion away from the bunker either upward or outward.
“They’re designed for safety to send the energy force into a safe direction,” he explained. “If a bunker went off, is there a possibility of a chain reaction? Not likely. There is a safe separation in distance between bunkers and the design of the bunkers should prevent this. They complement each other in design and layout.”
Bunkers like the ones at Camp Minden are located at installations across the country, Burns said. If the storage was dangerous, there could possibly have been other instances elsewhere.
“One concern I have is the stuff was left out in the open, was rained on, got hot and cold, perhaps some bags were broken or chipped. Consequently, there may have been some minor changes to the dynamics of the propellant,” he said. “Hopefully, there has been no variation to the design to portions of the product.”
Burns complimented Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, and Rep. Reynolds “who have stepped forward with concern for their constituents. And, I’m glad the EPA is taking another look at a more satisfactory, environmentally and people friendly method of taking care of this. We have to eliminate this danger and not have it replicated.”
He dealt with numerous dangerous explosives in varying amounts during his military career, but never has Burns heard of an accumulation such as the millions of pounds of M6 at Camp Minden.
“Personally, I’ve never heard of this kind of volume,” he said. “Explo had an end-user contract. They were paid by the Army to disassemble the propellant from the explosives. They lost their contract and didn’t tell anyone. They just kept taking in these munitions, disassembling them and bagging the M6.”
Burns believes the possibility of one massive explosion, which would include all the M6 stored in the bunkers, is remote.
“It’s tough to convince everyone. There’s a lot of concern and chatter on social media about what happens if it explodes. There’s always explosive potential, but not a lot of evidence a massive explosion would occur. If it all was in one bunker, a catastrophic detonation might happen. But it’s segregated and aerated and that’s not likely,” he said.
While he still believes the biggest peril is what might be released into the atmosphere by the open pit burn of M6, Burns understands time is short.
“What goes into the air is potentially the biggest danger but, that said, the clock is ticking. I must make that point. Some level of degrading is going on and I don’t know how you can calculate it. I don’t know that we can perform visual inspections,” he said.
In addition to the potential for harm to people, ground water and other elements of the environment, Burns sees another unfortunate circumstance that is developing.
“Camp Minden is a great area and has so much potential for economic development,” he said. “But with this issue out there, who would want to come?”