Search & destroy mission under way in Utah desert for dangerous munitions

Published: Thursday, May 24 2012 10:18 p.m. MDT

A herd of wild horses runs in the West Desert Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011, near Simpson Springs, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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CLIVE, Utah — Clean-up crews are on a search-and-destroy mission in the West Desert to get rid of large numbers of old artillery shells and land mines. The munitions pose a potential safety threat in an area that's wide-open to the public.

    The munitions are leftover ordnance from World War II. They were supposed to be disposed of more than a half-century ago but the military did an incomplete job.

    "So what we're out here looking for are any of those ordnance items that are laying on the surface," said Dan Kur of URS Corp. 

   For the past three months, two dozen URS workers have been scouring the danger zone under a contract for Hill Air Force Base. The cleanup is the result of a 2001 Department of Defense directive to scour destruction sites and make sure overlooked ordnance is properly disposed of.

    So far the cleanup workers have found hundreds of unexploded artillery shells, a live hand-grenade and a number of explosive land mines. They've also hauled away dozens of tons of metal debris, mostly chunks of shrapnel from exploded artillery shells.

    The dangerous items have been scattered around the desert at least since 1955. The area is open to the public for recreation, although visitors are rarely seen there. The location is within a couple of miles of the EnergySolutions nuclear waste disposal facility.

    The safety problem was created after the war ended when the military attempted to get rid of surplus ordnance by blowing it up.

"Back then they took old munitions, put them in a pile, put explosives on them, and treated them, blew them up, so that they could get rid of them," said Bob Elliott, a Hill Air Force Base official involved in the cleanup project.

      The procedure left the desert floor pockmarked with evidence of big explosions. Workers have found 52 large craters within a two-square mile area. But the explosions didn't destroy everything.

         "When they did the disposal operations," Kur said, "a lot of the stuff did not detonate and it was thrown out" of the craters.

         Kur said the crew does not have authority to prevent members of the public from visiting but they will suspend the cleanup operation if any visitors come too close.  URS required a visiting news crew to undergo a safety briefing and to stay hundreds of yards away from the cleanup activity.

         The workers are leaving small metal fragments on the ground where they find them. They're hauling out pieces that are more than three inches in length.  Any unexploded munitions they find are being blow up in place with RDX, an explosive commonly used in mining.

         Although the area is rarely visited, the munitions clearly have posed a threat to recreationists for years.

"Some of the stuff out there could look like what you would think an artillery shell looks like," Kur said. "Some stuff might look like what you'd think a beer can would look like. Some stuff might look like just a big hunk of rust. That could be a rusty fuse that could cause serious bodily harm."

    By the end of next week, Kur expects the crew to have all surface hazards cleaned up, but the project could stretch on for 10 years.  In the future, the subsurface will be explored electronically. If unexploded munitions are found to be lurking underground, decisions will have to be made about whether they should be excavated.

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com

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