Judging by the meager turnout at a public hearing Friday, most Utahns don't care whether the Air Force blows up obsolete rockets in a remote region of the Great Salt Lake Desert.
Only four showed up to testify at a hearing Friday on a proposal to dispose of 363 Poseidon missile motors on the Utah Test and Training Range near the Great Salt Lake. The range is used by the Hill Air Force Base for bombing practice and other missions.All four were members of groups with anti-military or pro-environment leanings.
Testifying against the proposal during the hearing by the Utah Division of Air Quality were Steve Erickson of the military watchdog group Downwinders; Cindy King of the Sierra Club; Chip Ward, a Grantsville resident who is a member of the Tooele County Clean Air Coalition; and Margaret Christensen, a Salt Lake resident who is a member of a group against military weapons.
But even if many Utahns lack strong opinions about using the UTTR, at least one high Air Force officer apparently does think it's a vital range.
Last year, government cost-cutters suggested closing the range. But the Air Force may need the range as a testing ground for cruise missiles launched from aircraft, according to what appears to be an internal Air Force memo.
Routing information on the memo indicates it was sent from the Air Combat Command in Langley, Va., to staff members of the secretary of the Air Force. It is unsigned, but Steve Peterson, legislative director for Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, vouched for its authenticity.
Peterson said that for it to have been sent, the memo must have been approved by the Air Combat Command's commander, Gen. John M. Loh.
"It's tough to tell how much it will help," Peterson said. "But when you have a four-star commanding general weighing in in your favor, it's a good thing.
"The range has a lot of users, but this is one major user saying it cannot do without it."
The memo says that Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Canadian Defense Minister David Collenette met in May, and Perry said his country no longer needs to test air-launched cruise missiles in Canada.
The memo noted that because of this commitment, "keeping the test and evaluation portion of UTTR open is now an urgent necessity" for the Air Combat Command.
"We now have no choice but to fall back on the UTTR for cruise-missile testing. The UTTR is the only test range in the United States that has the remote land area with varied terrain and safety footprint to test cruise missiles fully."
Besides the cruise tests, the training range is essential for testing other weapons that need a lot of land, such as what are called the "joint-directed attack munition" and the "joint standoff weapon," says the memo.
Evaluating air-to-ground weapons relies upon the flexibility and cost-effectiveness provided by the range, it says.
"Request your assistance to keep this valuable test resource fully operational and available for weapons testing and evaluation," it adds.
During the hearing, Erickson said a state analysis of possible air pollution from blowing up the missiles seems to contradict itself and is different from information provided by the Air Force. He also denounced state officials for excluding consideration of noise issues.
"I would like to know what kind of liner is used in these missiles as well . . . It probably contains asbestos," he said. Asbestos can cause cancer if inhaled in large enough amounts, and Erickson worried that blowing up the motors would put asbestos particles into the air.
In addition, many more missiles may be destroyed, including obsolete Minuteman, MX and Trident rockets, he said.
Erickson asked if blowing up the Poseidon will set a precedent, and, in effect, set state policy on such detonations. "Are we ignoring the governor's mandate to develop policy on these matters?" he said.
He added that it appeared "that we may have some other options for storage."
The Air Force may "pooh-pooh the issue of noise and focus shock waves," he said, but last November, when the Air Force blew up two of the motors, the blasts "rocked the Wasatch Front" and people called the University of Utah seismograph stations about it.
King charged that Utah health officials seem "to be asleep at the handle" over the air-pollution issue regarding detonations of rocket motors.
Ward faulted the state for poor notification. He heard about the hearing through Erickson, he said, but many others in Grantsville weren't aware of it.
"It's bad enough when you hold one meeting, you hold it here and you hold it in the middle of the day," making it difficult for working people to attend, he said. But Ward said what's worse is that such hearings are only speed bumps in the Air Force's fast-track to turn Utah's western desert into a "detonation zone."
Christensen, a member of a Salt Lake group called Writing to Reduce Weapons, said the detonations would be "extremely damaging to the environment."
"We are still producing weapons" while talking about blowing up the rockets, she said. "Why don't we balance it (the detonations) with some sort of agreement that there be a drop in production?"