Dr. Brian Salvatore spends a lot of time with his chemistry students at LSU-Shreveport where he’s been on the faculty since 2003. Now, he finds himself finding the time to help search for solutions to the problem presented by the massive amount of M6 propellant properly stored at Camp Minden.
Speaking to the Minden Lions Club Thursday, Salvatore says the propellant is moving steadily toward the date when it will reach a critical point.
“There’s an October 15 timeline when the M6 will be reaching a stage of critical instability,” he said. “Even an open burn will not have taken care of it by then. From a chemical perspective, we’re very concerned about what is out there.”
Salvatore showed a video of the October 2012 blast at Camp Minden that, he says, was actually two explosions. In the first, at around 11:30 p.m. on the night of the 15th, “…an unknown material went off in one of the bunkers, then about 10 seconds later it set off M6 in a trailer beside the bunker,” he said.
That explosion took out less than one-half of one percent of the material, Salvatore says. An explosion involving the 15.6 million pounds of M6 currently stored at Camp Minden would be powerful, he says.
“It’s not like we will have a catastrophic chain reaction, but what people have to realize is there is equal in energy, not power, but energy of up to about three-fourths of the Hiroshima atomic bomb,” he predicted.
Salvatore says the M6, which is now obsolete, is a mixture of several substances. One, nitrocellulose, burns too fast by itself.
“If nitrocellulose is used by itself, it will damage the gun barrel of the weapon it’s used in,” he said. “Deterrents have to be added, and it’s some of these that are disturbing.”
Some of those additives include dinitrotoluene, which Salvatore identified as a serious carcinogen. Dinitrotoluene, he says, makes up about 10 percent of the propellant, which translates to 1.6 million pounds of the substance.
“It’s a Class B2 carcinogen. After the explosion that happened back in 2012, they were so concerned they went out and gathered up the material by hand and open burned 16,000 pounds of it and didn’t bother to tell anybody,” Salvatore said. “If we don’t find a safe solution, people are just going to resort to the most expedient method and we’ve got to prevent that.”
Another chemical of concern is dibutylthiourea, an endocrine disruptor that Salvatore says can cause serious birth defects and infertility. About 800,000 pounds of the compound is involved in the propellant stored in bunkers that Salvatore says have been on the grounds since the 1940s.
A consideration some find disturbing is the age of the M6 propellant.
“The propellant sitting out there in those bunkers is 30 to 35 years old,” Salvatore said, “and the worst part about it is Explo mixed up all the lots. The potential data we could use is lost and scrambled.”
When the public first became aware of the potential hazard presented by the M6 and saw the individuals who were expressing concern, the first thought was that environmentalists were descending on Minden, Salvatore says.
“When I first became concerned, people were saying, ‘Well, look at these environmentalists. Let them go knock themselves out.’ I’m a chemist. I favor renewable energy, but I never put myself in that category,” he said. “But really, everybody is an environmentalist if you want healthy kids, if you don’t want your spouse, children or siblings to develop cancer, if you want children to have grandchildren.”
State forestry officials announced last month that a controlled burn on roughly 1,500 acres of Camp Minden would be conducted. Salvatore says that burn could be counter-productive to the stability of the propellant stored in the bunkers.
“They shouldn’t be doing those brush burns out there and producing ground ozone,” he said. “Like it or not, the fact is there is degradation. We’re shortening the life span of the propellant by doing open burns, even if it is just the brush.”
Salvatore is a member of the 30-person dialogue committee made up of concerned citizens and government officials who are trying to come up with an acceptable method to dispose of the M6.
“There’s a privilege and a public service to serving on the dialogue committee,” he said. “This (M6 issue) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for which there is no dress rehearsal.”
Working with the committee and facilitators seems to be helping the process go a little smoother, Salvatore says, but he still has a concern.
“It seems like the concerned citizens are doing all the leg work while the government has been doing a lot of showing up and answering some questions, but not all that we want to have answered,” he observed. “We are all going to have to be prepared to be activists. This process has to end responsibly and safely. We don’t have that assurance yet.”