Tight-knit Colfax community combats open-burn pit: ‘We are the flush toilet…’

Facility opened up to dispose Camp Minden waste; neighbors note high cancer rates

By: - January 15, 2023 5:00 am
Terry Brown stands outside his home on the property where his family first settled in Grant Parish in 1817.

Terry Brown’s family settled in Colfax more than 200 years ago. He and neighbors report increased incidents of cancer since the Clean Harbors open-burn and detonation facility opened in 2002. (Photo by Frances Madeson)

COLFAX, Louisiana – The drive to Terry Brown’s farm is peaceful and scenic no matter which route one takes. The Central Louisiana roadside is lined with woodlands, pecan groves, vast open fields and, nearer to the Browns, a well-kept horse farm.

The 71-year-old Colfax native planted 50,000 daffodil bulbs in fields where watermelons and cotton used to grow. He remembers picking cotton as a child as part of his chores and the sharp end of the bolls stinging his fingers bloody. In the spring, the field nearest the Browns’ house is a solid blanket of flowers.

“I used to have more daffodils, but the pocket gophers like the bulbs,” Brown said. “Have you ever seen them? They’re a wood rat looking thing that’s got teeth like a squirrel.”

A retired state transportation employee and a two-term representative in the Louisiana Legislature, Brown and his wife of 36 years, Lou, live next door to the brick house where he was raised.

Brown’s father’s family settled in what is now Grant Parish more than two centuries ago. They brought Methodism from Georgia where they had been followers of John Wesley.

Since 1817 when they arrived in Louisiana, the branches of the family tree extended to Union and Confederate officers, Catholics and Dutch Reformists, which was the church his mother was raised in, and eventually some Jews. Two generations ago there was an interracial couple who had 12 or 13 children.

“We’re related to pretty much everybody, white and Black, who lives in this area,” Brown said, adding that the cross-racial ties are openly acknowledged. “They’ve always been there to help us, and we’ve always been there to help them.”

Until recently, Brown said the quality of air and water in Grant Parish was unrivaled among Louisiana’s 64 parishes. But that was before Clean Harbors Colfax, which had been operating since 2002, expanded its operations at its open-burn, open-detonation hazardous waste disposal site in 2015.

After that, Brown said, the tight knit community of family and friends eventually started seeing each other most frequently at hospital bedsides, funeral parlors and cemeteries.

There's nothing clean about Clean Harbors.

– Terry Brown, Colfax resident

On Dec. 15, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) held an open public comment session in Colfax. At issue was the renewal of Clean Harbor’s hazardous waste management permit that proposes a buildout of a closed-burn system. It would still allow open burning and detonation of material such as military rockets and rocket fuel.

 All 25 commenters at the hearing spoke in opposition to LDEQ granting the permit. The agency’s public comment period on the Clean Harbors renewal request ended Friday.

 Brown thinks their little community has suffered enough.

“My wife is horrified. She has had breast cancer, thyroid issues and leukemia, which thankfully is in remission. But she’s been taking treatment for almost two years for leukemia,” Brown said. “Cancer is common here. My sister-in-law down the road has breast cancer. My brother had colon cancer; I’ve had polyps. We’ve had about seven cases of pancreatic cancer in the last three years.”

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Brenda Vallee, who Brown has known since they were children, founded the Central Louisiana Coalition for a Clean and Healthy Environment seven years ago to confront the threat to the public health and safety when the open burn pit became a known problem.

Brown calls her the kingpin” of the concerned citizens group, which has met monthly, sometimes more frequently, since the U.S. Department of Defense contracted Clean Harbors to detonate munitions from Camp Minden. Its facility is adjacent to a residential majority African-American neighborhood called The Rock.

 Vallee lives in The Rock. Three weeks ago she buried her nephew who lived there.

“His farm was closer to Clean Harbors than my house,” Vallee said in a text message to the Illuminator. “He had pancreatic cancer.”

Pancreatic cancer is linked to open burning, according to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ public health advisory notice. It is one of 21 cancers and 12 serious respiratory conditions designated as “presumptive conditions for airborne hazards and burn pit exposures.” 

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 appropriated $500 million to a fund for impacted military veterans. The Biden administration has requested $13.7 billion for 2023 and an advance appropriation of $18 billion for 2024.

“There’s nothing clean about Clean Harbors. We are the flush toilet of the entire military installation,” Brown said. “And the happy place, Disney World, they send all their fireworks here to be burned. Some mornings, I smell firecrackers in my yard.”

Clean Harbors has not responded to multiple calls to its Massachusetts corporate headquarters for comment.

Wilma Subra, a chemist with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), confirmed in an email to the Illuminator that Disney sends its outdated fireworks to the Colfax hazardous waste facility. She said that will not stop under the terms of the renewal permit.

“In the application for the contained burn chamber, one of the wastes that will need to continue to be open burned is large fireworks,” Subra said, “and the source will be Disney.”

Brown lives 10 miles from the burn pit and scoffs at the company’s claim that the residue from what is burned settles only within the boundaries of their facility.

“We had sand from the Sahara Desert earlier this summer; and when Mount Pinatubo blew up in the Philippines 30 years ago, we had beautiful sunsets for eight or 10 years after that here in Louisiana,” Brown said. “So don’t tell me that if the sand from the Sahara blew in here in July this year, and the year before last, too, that this stuff falls only on their 700 acres.

Brown’s daughter and grandchild live in Baton Rouge, but he worries for the young people growing up under the toxic shadow of the rising black plumes.

“Well, they’re all going to be subject to more and more cancer and birth defects and all kinds of other things,” Brown said. “That’s exactly what I think.”

As a state lawmaker from 2012-2020, Brown said key legislators can go a long way in helping persuade the governor to not permit any open burning or detonation at Clean Harbors Colfax.

Brown referenced a promise Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, made at a Dec. 13 community meeting, when he said he would approach Gov. John Bel Edwards about the Clean Harbors permit. Luneau did not respond to multiple requests from the Illuminator for an update.

“The governor, that’s kind of the last hope,” Brown said.

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Frances Madeson
Frances Madeson

Frances Madeson is a Central Louisiana-based freelance reporter with a special interest in accountability journalism.

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