Tooele • The Air Force will spend more than $150Â million over the next 20 years to clean up hazardous munitions mistakenly left on Bureau of Land Management and state school trust lands in Utah's west desert, a Hill Air Force Base manager said Wednesday.
"Of all the [environmental] hazards we deal with at Hill Force Base, as risks go this is the highest priority," Mark Loucks, chief of environmental restoration for the base, told members of Tooele County's Local Emergency Planning Committee.
The munitions shells, rockets, rusting inert bombs are on public lands adjacent to the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR), and for decades weren't much of a hazard to humans because people didn't venture to the remote sites.
These days, though, all-terrain vehicle and dirt-bike riders are leaving tracks through craters where munitions were dumped and partially destroyed in the decade after World War II.
"It's kind of its own little terrain park out there," said Lance Kovel, the manager for the Military Munitions Response Program for Hill, pointing to a picture his crew took of a dirt-bike track between fuse components.
Base personnel found a fire ring and often find litter in sand dunes where errant rockets, such as a HARM missile from the 1980s, landed, apparently from a Hill jet missing its training target. Some munitions are discovered as sand dunes shift.
Much of the munitions debris is a legacy of World War II and the ensuing years when the base north of Salt Lake City was a repository for conventional weapons, Loucks said.
Workers would go out to the desert, unload a flat-bed trailer of shells and explode them.
"These guys didn't have GPS. They probably thought they were on the range," Loucks said.
The detonations would create craters, embedding some debris in the earth and scattering shards for up to a mile around.
This spring, Hill personnel scoured every inch of an 1,100-acre parcel about five miles south of EnergySolutions' commercial waste disposal facility at Clive, Kovel said.
It is one of two sites of most concern because of increasing recreational traffic.
They picked up 40 tons of munitions debris in and around 52 craters and took it to the Oasis landfill on the UTTR. Nearly 400 pieces that still had explosives in them had to be destroyed, Kovel said. The most abundant and hazardous were 105-mm artillery shells.
The next step at that site one of nine just outside the UTTR boundary will be to use ground-penetrating radar to find any remaining metal.
Some of the munitions came from the sky, even in more recent years. Targets that should have been on the UTTR were instead made on BLM and state trust lands and sometimes, shells and rockets went astray, spreading the munitions even farther.
"We need to clean them up to make them safe for the public," Kovel said.
Kevin Oliver, west desert district manager for the BLM, told committee members he has worked since April to put big signs with maps warning recreationists away from sites where munitions have been found.
"Essentially our neighbor has knocked on our door and said, 'We were busy 50 years ago with the war and we kind of made a mess on your property."
No one has yet suggested an official closure of the areas, and those typically don't work because enforcement is difficult, he said.
"We've had 50 years and no incidents I'm aware of," Oliver said.
Meanwhile, HAFB is moving ahead to clean up its own hazardous-munitions sites in areas of the massive UTTR that are no longer used for training, Loucks said. Much, but not all, of the nearly 1-million-acre range is fenced.
The debris on and off the range, he said, can be "very dangerous. That's what keeps me up at night."