Neighbors of rural tear gas manufacturing plant resent explosions, but embrace jobs

Feature for WESA, August 30 2018

Listen to radio feature here

For more than 20 years, Terry Burns has lived with a munitions plant virtually in her backyard. She sells vegetables and lawn ornaments out of her home on a small country road in Jamestown, Pa.: population 617.

Just a half-mile behind her house, on the other side of a stand of trees, Combined Systems Inc. manufactures and tests non-lethal weapons: tear gas, smoke bombs and “crowd control devices.” Blasts can be heard from her house.

“The testing can get very loud like fireworks. It can be often like the grand finale,” said Burns. “It is something that I have gotten used to, that I don't even notice so much, but when family or friends are here they'll say, ‘What's going on? Who's shooting?’”

Combined Systems Inc., which is owned by the investment firm the Carlyle Group, is one of the world’s leading manufacturers in the growing, $1.6 billion non-lethal weapons industry. CSI supplies both U.S. law enforcement agencies and foreign governments.

CSI opened the plant in an unincorporated part of Jamestown, which is 90 miles north of Pittsburgh, in 1995. Burns said when the company first arrived and began testing their products outdoors, the explosions were large enough to rattle her house. (CSI didn't respond to interview requests.)

Then there were the fires—at least four recorded in newspaper accounts and OSHAdocuments since 2004—and the occasional tear gas release. Burns remembers one serious accident that prompted officials to evacuate the area.

“It was a cloud, smoke coming our way. You could tell it was something so unusual, something you’d never seen before, something dangerous if you want to say,” said Burns, who was running a daycare out of her house at the time. She brought the kids indoors until the cloud passed. “We weren’t aware of how to handle it. I didn’t know what to do.”

Still, accidents like that one have been relatively rare, and Burns is glad to have the plant here.

She’s not alone. Once, Jamestown had plenty of jobs. Today, CSI is one of the only games in town.

“We used to have a lumber yard—two lumber yards at one time—10 gas stations, railroad tracks going north south east and west. We were a growing, prosperous community,” said Michael Reilly, borough council president in Jamestown. “All that is gone. So now we have what we have, and there's not much here.”

Jamestown depends on tourism to Pymatuning State Park, which is one of the most visited parks in the state; it supports a small main business drag with restaurants and kayak rental shops. There’s also a paint mill in town.

And then there’s CSI, which employs around 230 people. Its campus in Jamestown now includes around 20 buildings.

“Something like [CSI] was just a godsend for a lot of people,” said Reilly. “In this area there’s just not the work there used to be.”

Keep reading

radioJen Kinneyreporting