NEW ORLEANS — Officials plan to dispose of nearly 100 tons of an unstable chemical compound currently stored at Camp Minden by burning it inside the same bunkers where it’s stored, Louisiana Environmental Quality Secretary Chuck Brown said Thursday.
That appears to be the best available option for dealing with the three bunkers at the National Guard facility holding “clean-burning igniter,” a compound also called nitrocellulose, said Brian Salvatore, chairman of the chemistry and physics department at Louisiana State University in Shreveport.
“It’s very unfortunate that the material proved to be so unstable,” said Salvatore, who also is a member of a Camp Minden citizens advisory committee. “But this is only 2 percent of everything that had been out there.”
Its instability was powerfully demonstrated when a bunker full of igniter exploded on Sept. 29 at the camp, where a contractor abandoned about 160 tons of igniter and 7,800 tons of M6 artillery propellant when it went bankrupt in 2013.
Plans to deal with the remaining compound call for remote ignition after the bunker doors are opened to give the fire a way out, Brown said.
“It’s become too unstable to even send any personnel nearby. They want to open the front door using a robot,” Brown said.
With the doors open, the fire should jet out briefly like a rocket flame, officials from state agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told state and local elected officials and members of the citizens advisory committee on Wednesday.
“CBI burns really fast — it doesn’t really explode unless it’s confined,” Salvatore said.
It’s used to touch off the propellant in artillery shells. M6 is mainly nitrocellulose, but other ingredients “plasticize” it and make it burn more slowly, Salvatore said.
Weather permitting, Brown said, the ignition dates would be Monday, a week from Saturday, and Oct. 29, with the burns scheduled in the morning while the wind is calm.
Brown said the bunker to be burned on Monday holds 820 pounds of igniter and nothing else. On Oct. 22, officials hope to burn 114,000 pounds of igniter, with one that holds 84,000 pounds of igniter and 40,000 pounds of M6 to be torched Oct. 29.
“Nitrocellulose is very unstable when it gets old. It builds up local hotspots that get hotter and hotter because nitric acid gets released from nitrocellulose,” Salvatore said.
He said the packages at Camp Minden are old and dry and weren’t stored properly by Explo Systems Inc., the company that had an Army contract to demilitarize it. “There were a whole host of things that made it so unstable,” Salvatore said.
His concerns, he said, include that burning nitrocellulose can release cyanide gas, and that burning M6 can release carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.
Local concern about plans to burn the M6 in the open prompted an outcry that changed that plan. The M6 stored in bunkers without igniter is being burned in a contained chamber miles from the storage area.
It had burned 6.9 million pounds, about 42.9 percent of the total, as of Thursday afternoon, according to an automatically updated website .
Asked if the flame could set off other bunkers, Salvatore replied, “They said they’re going to cover up the vents and they’re going to hope.”