Explosion in Chester Gap: Tannerite blast permitted under state, federal laws

Does deafening blast violate Rappahannock noise code?

One week has passed since Rappahannock, Warren and Fauquier county residents “heard and felt” a loud explosion that the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office determined was caused by an obviously large but legal Tannerite blast in the vicinity of Chester Gap.

Courtesy photo
The “boom” from last week’s Tannerite blast in Chester Gap rattled windows 30 miles away.

While dozens of citizens took to social media to question whether a resulting “boom” from Tannerite could actually rattle windows at a distance of 30 miles — as occurred with the Chester Gap explosion — the answer is arguably yes, given the adjacent mountain range that channeled shock waves almost due south through Huntly, Flint Hill, Amissville and Rixeyville.

In a similar hilly area of Upstate New York in 2013, a 20-year-old target shooter exploded 18 pounds of Tannerite that was heard “35-plus” miles from the blast site, even though the reverberation had to pass first through one city and several large towns.

A broadcast network’s 2012 investigation of similar booms caused by binary explosives like Tannerite, undertaken in 25 regions around the country from Massachusetts to South Carolina to California, revealed one citizen complaint after another of booms “that shook either the bottoms of their feet, their legs, their houses, [or] their windows.”

In the suburbs surrounding Richmond, a 28-year-old Chesterfield man gladly took credit in 2014 for a series of “Earth-rattling explosions” that spooked residents for weeks. The unapologetic man explained that he and his buddies enjoyed using Tannerite for target practice — shooting bullets into the explosives — and had no plans to stop. As was the case in Chester Gap last Wednesday, the Richmond-area booms shook homes in three counties: Chesterfield, Dinwiddie and Prince George.

The Chesterfield target shooter went on to boast to a Richmond TV station: “We have caused many, many [booms] and yes, plenty more are to come. Yes, people get upset, but they live a different lifestyle. We live to hunt and fish and we love our guns.”

So what’s a disturbed resident to do?

Chesterfield law enforcement, joined by legal experts, convened a public meeting at a local high school, in effect telling concerned citizens that their hands were mostly tied because of the laws on the books.

“People begin to get fearful of what they hear,” Chesterfield resident Juanita Hudgins countered. “You’re not sure if it’s a terrorist attack, you don’t know whether something is falling out of the sky, so we are concerned.”

On Oct. 1, 2014, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring weighed-in on community concerns not just in Richmond, but elsewhere in the Old Dominion. Writing a three-page opinion, Herring concluded that Tannerite “is not illegal so long as the use or possession is for a lawful purpose such as the recreational use for which it is intended.”

Herring continued: “In this regard, Tannerite is no different from . . . gunpowder, black powder, butane, match heads, paint thinner, or gasoline, that meet the literal definition of ‘explosive material,’ but that may be possessed legally in the absence of illegal acts or illegal content.”

As far as the U.S. government is concerned, quoting the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF): “Binary explosives are pre-packaged products [like Tannerite] consisting of two separate components, usually an oxidizer like ammonium nitrate and a fuel such as aluminum or another metal. These components typically are not listed separately on the List of Explosive Materials and do not meet the definition of ‘Explosives’ . . . Therefore, ATF does not regulate the sale and distribution of these component chemicals, even when sold together in binary kits.”

Regardless, Rappahannock County residents question in online postings why potentially dangerous products like Tannerite aren’t more strictly regulated, whether by county, state or federal authorities, starting with restrictions on how much Tannerite (by pound) can be detonated at one time.

Kim Burgers, one of several residents writing on the Rappahannock News website, pointed out in part: “Let’s keep in mind Timothy McVeigh had ‘nothing more’ than fertilizer and diesel fuel in Oklahoma City. What was the quantity of ‘Tannerite’ detonated in Chester Gap?”

To which another writer wrote: “I agree. I live in Huntly, and I had indoor objects flying off walls, bookshelves, and tables. Outside, the porch rocking chairs were agitated. The fact that this [News] article reports our sheriff minimizing this explosion [as] ‘nothing more’ [than Tannerite] is sadly lame. There is no excuse for an amateur individual having access to a substance that could cause a sonic boom.”

Another reader, Joanne Welch, described being literally shaken from the blast: “[O]ur whole house shook and so did the chair I was sitting in. I thought the ground under me was opening up like a sinkhole or that one of our large trees had fallen right beside our house. I ran from our house to the outside and no tree, no sinkhole swallowing up our house, no birds chirping . . . just very quiet.”

If nothing else, wrote another Rappahannock citizen, doesn’t a tremendous blast in Chester Gap heard and felt as far away as Rixeyville constitute “disturbing the peace?”

Rappahannock County does have a noise ordinance — §170-117 — adopted by the board of supervisors on Dec. 1, 1986, which states: “[N]o use, operation or activity shall cause or create noise in excess of the sound level prescribed.”

And what sound level is prescribed by the Rappahannock government?

Excessive noise levels in the county, according to the code, vary with zoning: there is an 80 decibels “maximum permitted peak pressure” within residential districts, and 90 decibels in non-residential districts (a decibel is defined as a unit used to measure the intensity of a sound by comparing it with a given level on a logarithmic scale; or generally speaking a decibel is “a degree of loudness.”)

As for the county’s noise enforcers (we assume the Rappahannock Sheriff’s office, although Sheriff Connie Compton did not return phone calls or a written request for answers), here’s how they are supposed to measure decibels, according to Rappahannock regulations:

“Noise shall be measured with a sound level meter, octave band analyzer and impact noise analyzer meeting the standards of the American National Standards Institute,” the county code states.

In the case of the Chester Gap explosion, and whether it crossed the boundary of excessive noise, law enforcement officials would obviously have needed to know beforehand when the shooter would be taking target practice and then be standing by with their sound level meter, octave band analyzer and impact noise analyzer — if indeed the sheriff’s office is even in possession of the sound measuring instruments.

About John McCaslin 202 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.

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