The International Information Center for Geotechnical Engineers

Investigating Soil Remediation Techniques for Military Explosive and Weapons Contaminated Sites



Before any investigations can be made regarding the importance or urgency of remediating explosive-contaminated sites, it is important to contextualize the number, and age, of said sites both within the United States and across the globe.  Doing so will reveal the necessity in which remediation of these sites need to be undertaken.  Our investigations begins in 1863 when German chemist Joseph Wilbrand first discovered 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene (TNT), one of the three main “energetic compounds” used for military application [4].  It was not until around 20 years after Wilbrand’s initial discovery that TNT’s highly explosive properties began to be both recognized and utilized [4].  The first major global use of TNT was during the onslaught of World War I. It wasn’t until the second World War that (1) the use of TNT around the world spiked to previously unprecedented levels and (2) the use of other energetic compounds such as hexa-hydro-1,3,5-trinitro-1,3,5-triazine (RDX) and octahydro-1,3,5,7-tetranitro- 1,3,5,7-tetrazocine (HMX) began to be utilized for military applications [5].  (For more information regarding the chemical composition of TNT, RDX, and HMX, please visit the section titled “A Brief Introduction to the Chemistry of Common Military Explosives”.)  Even today, TNT, RDX and HMX are still common energetic compounds for military use [6].


There are five main ways that energetic compounds in military applications have and are currently entering soil and groundwater environments [7]:

(1)  Ammunition production facilities

(2)  Ammunition packing warehouses

(3)  Disposal and destruction facilities for used or partially-used ammunition

(4)  Weapon firing ranges

(5)  Weapon impact areas


The aforementioned modes of contamination take on various types and concentrations; however all contribute to the contamination that is the focus of our investigations.  For our historical investigation of the five military uses of energetic compounds listed above, we focus on two areas: (1) the typical longevity of firing ranges and training facilities around the world and (2) the volume of such facilities throughout the last century.


 Military production facilities, training complexes, and firing ranges within the United States have been active for many decades.  For instance, the United States Pantex Ordnance Plant near Amarillo, Texas is currently a nuclear weapons production facility, but the plant has been in operation since 1942, where it first began production of artillery shells and bombs for US World War II efforts [8].  The 16,000 acres of the plant, as well as surrounding areas of Amarillo, Texas, have been exposed to TNT, RDX, and HMX contaminated soils and groundwater for over 70 years.  Given this, contamination near the Pantex plant has reached a depth of 10 meters below the ground surface, with reports of localized contamination reaching 85 meters [7].  Contaminants have also been reported beyond the facility and are at a potential risk of contaminating the Ogallala aquifer (Figure 1), a 174,000 square mile aquifer that is a major drinking and agricultural water source for central United States [9].

 ogallala aquifer usgs

Figure 1. A map of the continental United States showing the Ogallala aquifer in blue (


 A similar situation is for other US army bases.  Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) (formerly Camp Lewis) in Washington state is one of the world’s largest military complexes with an almost 100 year history, and has been actively involved in all major wars since its inception [10].  Currently, JBLM has 115 live fire ranges [10].  Perhaps more unsettling than this is that JBLM also has 16 housing communities on the base, which, in regards to groundwater contamination caused by the firing ranges, are dangerously near-by [10].


We see similar trends in the age of military firing ranges beyond the United States as well.  For instance, Cedar Spring Range and Training Area in Chatham, Ontario, Canada has been active since 1912, and Winona Range and Training Area in Grimsby, Ontario, Canada has been active for 77 years [11].  England’s Defense Training Estate North (East) has been established since before World War I, with the nation’s other 15 major range and training facilities and 104 minor facilities following similar historic trends [12].  We see similarly-aged firing ranges in all major nations across Europe and beyond [5].


With military facilities across the globe having been used for many decades, the contamination effects of TNT, RDX, and HMX on surrounding soil and groundwater sources have been nothing but exacerbated.  The health effects of these energetic compounds have been heightened by the years of accumulated use at these military sites. (For more information regarding the environmental impacts of these three energetic compounds, please visit the section titled “Health and Environmental Concerns of TNT, RDX, and HMX”.)  


Another important investigation regarding a historical look at military use of energetic compounds is the volume of production and use.  TNT production peaked during times of war, namely World War II [7].  According to Lewis et al., 2003, “By 1945, TNT production capacity in the US was as high as 65 tons of TNT per production line per day…while German production was 2.36x104 tons per month.” Similarly, in consequence of the Vietnam War, Vietnam was faced with a sharp increase of energetic compounds in its underground environments.  Lewis et al., 2003 notes that


“In 2002 The Viet Nam [sic] Ministry of Defense estimated UXO [unexploded ordinates, which are explosives or munitions that were fired, but did not explode because of technical malfunctions] and land-mine-affected land to comprise ‘approximately 7-8% of the country.’ Between 15-20% of UXO and mines from the war are believed to remain. Official sources estimate from 350,000-800,000 tons of war-era ordinance in the soil.”


Laos experienced more than 2 million tons of explosive air raids during 1964-1973 [7].  Iraq, one of “the most energetics-contaminated countries in the world” has approximately 1,730km2 of energetic compound-contaminated ground [7].  Lewis et al., 2003 goes onto say that in Iraq, 


“Affected sites…affect 1.6 million people. Contamination includes 20 million mines, numerous UXO sites, and many abandoned munitions sites. Over 50 million cluster bomblets were dropped on Iraqi soil.”


The majority of military energetic compound-contaminated sites within the United States and Canada are on testing and troop training facilities [7].  Regardless, the estimated number of possible US UXO-contaminated sites is 10 million acres, not to mention the estimated 1.2 million tons of soil within the United States that have been contaminated with explosives (non-UXO) [5,7].


Investigating the volume of energetic compound soil contamination around the globe could continue endlessly – the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict from 1988-1994, the Cold War (contamination due more to explosive manufacturing rather than actual use), the Indonesian and Korean Wars, etc.  However the same conclusion would be determined: the volume of military-contaminated soil around the world has reached such enormous levels to not simply warrant, but rather require large-scale remediation.  When this volume of soil is also put into context with the typically decades-old military facilities, the need for remediation ought to not simply be a military concern, but also an environmental and public health issue that warrants immediate attention.


Add comment

NOTE: The symbol < is not allowed in comments. If you use it, the comment will not be published correctly.

Security code
*Please insert the above-shown characters in the field below.