Published at the end of 2017, a report into the risk of toxic contamination from old military sites in the US – including munitions ranges – was scathing in its conclusions. It warned that in Florida alone more than 200 sites with military links had been found to be ‘hazardous’.

And it isn’t just sites in operation today. ProPublica, a not-for-profit organisation which produced the report by analysing data from the US Department of Defence (DoD), warned sites that hadn’t been in use for more than 70 years continued to be hazardous and would require millions to fund a successful cleanup.

In particular, Fort Pickens, situated at Gulf Islands National Seashore, requires as much as $8m to clean up and be monitored for another 30 years at least.

It should be said ProPublica has, for some time, been a vocal critic of the US Government on this subject.

The cost of cleaning up munitions ranges

The clean-up and monitoring bill alone in the US is staggering, with some sites having already cost, or estimated to cost, hundreds of millions of dollars. Add to that the concerns of communities regarding sites in their area and the issue becomes hugely costly, both in terms of military finances and, arguably, reputation for the US military and government.

“In the US there have been several notable cases where contamination by explosives or explosive constituents, such as white phosphorus, ammonium perchlorate and RDX, have caused significant environmental damage,” says Melissa Ladyman, a lecturer in environmental chemistry at Cranfield Defence Chemistry, part of Cranfield University in the UK.

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“Live-fire training is essential to maintain military readiness, but as a result explosive residue will be deposited on the land. Over many years of training significant explosive deposits may accumulate and, without appropriate monitoring and management, could lead to damage to local ecosystems, contamination of nearby water sources and land, or toxicity to local flora and fauna.”

The Environmental Science Group, part of Cranfield Defence Chemistry, provides teaching and research into the impact explosives can have on the environment. The School of Cranfield Defence and Security has nine centres in total, one being Cranfield Ordnance Test and Evaluation Centre (COTEC), which performs independent test and evaluation on munitions, weapon systems, pyrotechnic and explosive stores, and carries out disposals and demilitarisation.

Europe vs US: differences in management standards

Because of the vital role military ranges have in the development of new munitions and the training of soldiers to ensure their readiness, Ladyman says it is important to manage training ranges to avoid pollution incidents which may result in restrictions on training with certain materials, or even closure of training areas altogether.

“In the UK, military training ranges tend to be well managed and access restrictions have allowed flora and fauna to flourish, making it imperative that any new materials introduced to the sites do not adversely affect the environment,” she adds.

While in the UK the situation seems to be well managed and very much under control, events in the US simply serve to reinforce the belief that not all militaries and their leaders are as well versed on this subject.

Armies across northern Europe, however, have had munitions and their potential for environmental contamination at the fore of their thinking for some time. Sweden became one of the first to introduce lead-free bullets following research that showed lead could leach from firing ranges and contaminate water and soil.

The science and regulation of munition range management

Are the issues in the US and decisions being taken by other militaries acknowledgement that munitions are evolving to be more dangerous to the environment, or that our understanding of their impact on the environment is improving? The latter, says Ladyman, adding: “People are now more aware of the environmental issues likely to occur with explosives.

“Another factor is the development of the science. Understanding the risk of exposure to certain chemicals, including explosives, is improving. Long and short-term exposure risks are now being assessed for concentration levels in soil and water, as well as understanding risks from degradation products and to other flora and fauna.”

Because of growing general awareness and improvements in science, regulations governing the management of live-fire ranges have also improved.

Environmental legislation has matured rapidly, with the definition of contamination and impact broadening to include deviation from baseline levels,” Ladyman says.

“For example, water quality in the European Union must now be frequently monitored and all surface waters should achieve a ‘good’ rating, meaning they are at least as clean as if there were no human intervention… This means there is a much better understanding of the importance of the natural environment, particularly to ensure sustainable use of all environmental resources. Environmental regulations have therefore had a significant impact on the military use of explosives.”

However, although the management of these sites has improved markedly over the years, Ladyman says there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can be taken, as each site and its environment is unique.

“The methods used to sample soil and water will also depend on the reason why sampling needs to be undertaken,” she says. “Sampling to determine whether houses can be built on a specific site would be different to routine sampling for a militarily training range. There are several different sampling strategies available, to help with these decisions the Environmental Science Group has been involved in writing a NATO standard.”

Finding the best approach to environmental monitoring

Training is essential in order for site management to meet the needs of the facility and the community in which it is, and to understand how newly introduced munitions might affect it.

The Environmental Science Group held a workshop on the topic back in 2016, for which it recently received a NATO Excellence Award. The Cooperative Demonstration of Technology (CDT) on Military Live Fire Range Characterisation programme held the workshop “brought together many experts to instruct those involved on the need to characterise explosives contaminated sites,” said to Environmental Science Group head Tracey Temple after the announcement of the award.

The workshop enabled the transfer of knowledge from pioneers in soil sampling methodology and analysis of explosively contaminated land. Attendees were welcomed from any NATO nation and comprised delegates from government organisations, people with responsibilities for the management of military training ranges and researchers interested in the science of soil sampling. It will be running again later this year.

“The CDT combines classroom learning with practical field and laboratory training on effective soil sampling using the multi-increment soil sampling method” Ladyman explains. “The aim is to demonstrate the importance of using an appropriate sampling method and sampling tools, how to undertake sampling in the field and how to process and analyse the samples in the laboratory. In practical terms this is several days spent at the Defence Academy in Shrivenham, and one day on the field at COTEC taking soil samples.”

Whilst the US is contending with some difficult issues surrounding historical site use, the military, DoD and Environment Protection Agency are taking huge steps towards addressing what has happened and preventing it from happening again. Meanwhile science is supporting the effort by developing a better understanding of the environmental impact and new methods to contain the damage.