HILL AIR FORCE BASE — As a massive program to replace the entire land-based portion of the U.S. nuclear enterprise revs up at Hill Air Force Base, defense officials are working to pinpoint impacts that will come with it.
The Air Force will soon begin working on an Environmental Impact Statement that details plans to dispose of its current cache of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and then, subsequently, deploy their replacement.
According to a notice recently posted to the Federal Register, the Air Force will evaluate the impacts to “human and natural environments” that could be caused by the multibillion-dollar Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program.
Headquartered at Hill, the GBSD program will replace the United States’ current ground ballistic missile force, which is made up of some 400 Minuteman ICBMs. The full program is estimated to cost more than $80 billion over its 30 year lifespan. The total cost includes the acquisition of missiles, new command and control systems, and large-scale renovations of launch control centers.
Currently being built up near Hill’s southwest border with Roy, the program will eventually include six new buildings with over 1 million square feet of office and lab facilities. In August 2019, Northrop Grumman broke ground on the Roy Innovation Center, which will serve as future headquarters for Northrop’s work supporting the program.
Base officials and members of Utah’s congressional delegation have said the program will be the largest source of growth across the base during the next several years, expected to bring as many as 4,000 new employees along with the construction of the new buildings.
Though the program also encompasses work that will be conducted at Air Force bases in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, the notice says maintenance, training, storage, testing, support, decommissioning and disposal actions would occur at Hill and the base’s Utah Test and Training Range on the Utah/Nevada border. The Air Force notice says the disposal process at Hill will not include generating or disposing of any nuclear material, and most of the expected environmental impacts are likely to come from ground disturbing activities associated with construction of the GBSD system.
As part of the program, construction at Hill includes five storage units and several support facilities. Another 11 missile storage facilities would be built at the UTTR.
The west desert training facility sits on seemingly lifeless terrain with not much more than sagebrush and dust. But thousands of years ago, the area was a rich delta, where indigenous people lived among flowing streams and marshland — a diverse ecosystem that supported life for thousands of years.
Significant archeological finds have been discovered at the UTTR in the past. In 2016, Hill archaeologists and a contracted archaeological team known as the Far Western Anthropological Research Group uncovered a hearth that contained tools, a spear tip, charcoal, duck and goose bone fragments and tobacco seeds. The hearth was estimated to be 12,300 years old. When the material was uncovered, archaeologists said they represented artifacts of the Great Basin’s earliest inhabitants.
Crews at the UTTR would also destroy old rocket motors as part of the program. Large detonation operations have already occurred at the UTTR for years. According to a press release from the base’s Environmental Public Affairs office, the warhead portion of missiles isn’t detonated at the UTTR and no nuclear materials are involved in the process. Since 2012, more than 300 rocket motors have been destroyed at the site, according to the release.
The UTTR is the only facility in the United States capable of destroying the missile motors.
Base Media Chief Donovan Potter said a 45-day “public scoping period” on the Environmental Impact Statement is now in effect. He said the scoping period is designed to involve the public early in the planning and development of the EIS. The Air Force has set up a public website, www.gbsdeis.com, that provides detailed information about the proposal and outlines how the public can be involved.
Potter said public meetings are typically held in person during the scoping period, but because of current public health concerns surrounding COVID-19, the Air Force won’t hold face-to-face meetings. Instead, all materials that would be presented at public meetings will be on the website.