Bombs in Utah’s Backyard

by Ryann Grochowski Jones and Abrahm Lustgarten at  Nov. 30, 11 a.m. EST

Compiled by Ed Wallace 11/30/2017

The military spends more than a billion dollars a year to clean up sites its operations have contaminated with toxic waste and explosives. A full map of these sites — which exist in every state in the country, some near schools and residential neighborhoods — has never been made public; until now.

There are 40,000 hazardous sites across the country polluted by U.S. military operations. The data comes from the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, which the DOD administers to measure and document cleanup efforts at current and former military locations.

There are 37 Military Installations with Hazardous Sites in Utah including 6 Military installations with at least one high or medium risk hazardous site. The total past and estimated future cost of the cleanup of Utah’s hazardous sites is $1.62B. Click here for an interactive map of sites in Utah.


Virtually every day, the Department of Defense and its contractors burn and detonate unused munitions and raw explosives in the open air with no environmental emissions controls, often releasing toxins near water sources and schools. The facilities operate under legal permits, but their potentially harmful effects for human health aren’t well researched, and EPA records obtained by ProPublica show that these sites have violated their hazardous waste permits thousands of times. Related story.

Most active sites, which currently burn or detonate waste into open air, are run by the military and its contractors, according to the EPA and the Pentagon.  Utah has active 6 burn sites with 404 violations. The Tooele Army Depot, South, has the second highest number of violations in the country (208). The highest is Anniston Army depot in Alabama with 209 violations. Click here for interactive Burn map.

Superfund Sites

Some of the sites are also Superfund sites, designating them as among the nation’s most environmentally contaminated sites with the highest cleanup priorities.  Based on EPA data, ProPublica has identified at least 35 burn sites with Superfund status, and half of those sites are still active. The total number of Superfund sites may be as high as 54, according to sources in the EPA.

Utah has one active superfund site, the Tooele Army Depot, which has a total of 65 violations.

Why You Should Care

There are more than 40,000 hazardous sites across the country polluted by U.S. military operations, affecting a total amount of land larger than the entire state of Florida. Some of these sites are probably near you and you may not even know it.

Many of these sites have extensive groundwater and soil pollution, or present a risk of exploding bombs and munitions, even if they are open to the public. Some have been converted to parks and wildlife reserves and even housing developments.

Many sites were part of old defense facilities that have long since shut down, and may not be known locally, even though a risk of exposure to contaminants may still be present. Even sites where the DOD says it has already completed its response can present an ongoing threat or risk to the public.

While the data pinpoints a precise location, contamination from that location may well affect a much larger area, even spreading off of Defense Department lands to public and private lands and the water supplies beneath them.  Sites in Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts, for example, affect hundreds of acres in residential areas far from the point of contamination.

Many former military sites have been certified as “Response Complete” but still carry restrictions that limit what people can or should do near these sites to stay safe. Just because the DOD is no longer attending to pollution doesn’t mean that there is no longer a public risk. These sites are labeled with “No Access” in the app.

Important Definitions

An installation, as the DOD means it, is a property formerly or currently owned by a DOD organization, like a military base, bombing range or munitions plant. Within installations are specific cleanup sites, which are the contaminated areas of an installation. An installation can have one site, or hundreds.

Response Complete means the DOD cleanup actions are complete. It does not necessarily mean that a site has been cleaned up, or that there is no longer an environmental risk. In some cases, “completed” sites are simply restricted or fenced off to keep the public away. In other cases, the DOD may have concluded that no cleanup was required by law or was necessary. Note that long-term monitoring or other restrictions may still be in place after a site has reached “Response Complete” status.

The DOD evaluates the risk posed by contaminated sites relative to all others in the cleanup program in order to prioritize which sites get cleaned up first. A site designated as “high risk” is considered so by DOD as compared to other sites in the program. When designating risk, the DOD takes into account the hazards of contaminants and where and how they might affect humans and the environment. The DOD uses a different designation for sites that contain unexploded ordnance or discarded military munitions.  You can read more about the risk designations in the full methodology under “Risk Levels.”

Background Reading

Bombs in Your Backyard

Open Burns, Ill Winds — The Pentagon’s handling of munitions and their waste has poisoned millions of acres, and left Americans to guess at the threat to their health.

How Military Outsourcing Turned Toxic — Fraud. Bribery. Incompetence. The military’s use of contractors adds to a legacy of environmental damage.

Kaboom Town — The U.S. military burns millions of pounds of munitions in a tiny, African-American corner of Louisiana. The town’s residents say they’re forgotten in the plume.

“This story was originally published by ProPublica.”

<script type="text/javascript" src="" async="true"></script>