"It's a dirty job and it isn't glamorous," explained Tim Hilyard, "but we are the only ones in DOD who can do it."
Hilyard, a physical scientist with the U.S. Army Public Health Command Air Quality Surveillance Program, has spent all of his time in the last 12 years checking the air quality produced by Army incinerators. These special incinerators are designed to destroy "off-spec and out-of-date" small-caliber munitions.
"Small-caliber rounds and small explosive devices such as grenades that do not meet the military's exacting standards could be dangerous for Soldiers to use," said Hilyard. "But disposing of them produces other challenges."
The Army has specially-designed incinerators to dispose of these materials, eliminating the explosive hazard and allowing the remaining metal parts, including brass, to be recycled.
"The USAPHC has tested the effluent from smokestacks at Army incinerators for more than 30 years," according to Brian Jones, AQS Program manager, who started his career as an Army environmental science officer at the then-Army Environmental Hygiene Agency, the predecessor of the USAPHC.
Sampling methods have not changed a lot, but the equipment required to test the samples has evolved.
"Each stack has ports or openings where we insert probes attached to our air-monitoring equipment, and samples of the effluent are sucked out of the stack," said Hilyard. "We use these air samples to determine if the emissions meet Environmental Protection Agency and local state standards."
Ensuring that appropriate emissions standards are met minimizes the impact on the local environment and helps protects the health of humans and wildlife.
"Some of the samples we take are sent back to the USAPHC laboratory to check for metals and volatile organic compounds. Other samples can be examined by a technician in one of our mobile labs onsite," Hilyard explained. "Quick evaluations allow our customers to monitor their operations and help them improve operations."
Protecting the environment is important, but so is the safety of those scientists who do the sampling.
"We wear hard hats, steel-toed shoes, and both chemical and/or heat resistant gloves when sampling," said Hilyard. "We are 10 feet or more up the stack and usually protected by metal safety rails and shielding."
Unexpected safety issues still occur.
"Once when we were sampling in the Utah desert, the heat from the stack had attracted a rattlesnake that we almost stepped on," laughed Adam McCann, who serves as a technician for the program. "In another location, a siren sounded, and everyone left the incinerator building. We found out later that the siren was a warning about a tornado that touched down close to us."
Even with all the challenges, complete surveys are required every 2-½ years, and changes in the incinerator functions may require more frequent testing.
"This testing is never routine," said Hilyard, "but our work helps the Army meet environmental standards and protects human health."