Air Force Bases

Deactivation of Minuteman II at Ellsworth AFB

The Minuteman II ICBMs at the 44th Strategic Missile Wing (SMW) at Ellsworth Air Force Base became the first missile wing in the country to have its Minuteman II missiles removed under the START Treaty. The deactivation began on 3 December 1991 with the removal of the missile from the Golf-02 silo near Red Owl, South Dakota. The removal of the Air Force's first Minuteman II at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota marked the beginning of the country's Minuteman II disarmament effort. The last Minuteman II missile in South Dakota was removed from its silo in April 1994. The Air Force conducted numerous studies to minimize economic and environmental impacts on the state and conducted public meetings to solicit input on proposed procedures from residents. The Air Force also disseminated information on silo deactivation through the public meetings and newsletters.

A group of Air Force missile maintainers known as the "Black Hills Bandits" held the responsibility for deactivation of the Minuteman II LFs and LCFs at Ellsworth Air Force Base between 1994 and 1997. This group of trained missile technicians worked to develop deactivation procedures customized to the needs of the 44th SMW, including lists of items to save, building maintenance plans, and procedures for handling hazardous waste. The procedures were based on guidelines for deactivation developed by the Air Force. The group developed the "44 MW Deactivation Maintenance Plan" that set out a fifteen-day schedule for Minuteman II deactivation. Some challenges specific to the 44th SMW included developing techniques for handling hazardous materials, such as polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs) or mercury bulbs. A plan also had to be developed for the removal of the weapon guidance and authentication system. On the eleventh day, the SMW turned the LF or LCF over to the base civil engineering squadron to complete deactivation procedures, including the shutdown of the electrical system.

In addition to the deactivation activities described above, LF sites also required imploding the silos, abandoning or removing the azimuth markers located on private land, filling the silo with rubble, and capping the silo with a concrete lid. Crews also filled sewage lagoons and removed diesel storage tanks at LCFs. The silo door was buried in a fourteen-to twenty-foot-deep hole. The site was then graded to predemolition contours and resurfaced with gravel. Non-gravel surfaces were graded and seeded and cathodic protection wells were capped four feet below ground surface. Following deactivation of the fifteen-day deactivation schedule, the sites were placed in caretaker status until the site was turned over to the dismantlement contractor. While in caretaker status Air Force crews maintained the sites, mowing lawns and repairing security fences. Following dismantlement, a second caretaker status ensued until the site was sold to an adjacent landowner. Deactivation procedures were modified for Delta-01 and Delta-09 as they were going to be preserved for interpretative use.

Landowner Issues

Prior to the dismantling of the silos, a controversy ensued in South Dakota over the best method of removal. The Air Force proposed to implode the silos to a depth of six meters below ground surface, the most economical of the two options specified in the START Treaty. Local ranchers expressed concern over the use of this method, fearing vibrations from the explosives would harm the quality of their water in underground wells. Many ranchers preferred the second acceptable option allowed by the treaty, which required the mechanical excavation of the silo to eight meters. The ranchers felt that the second option had less possibility of disturbing the underground water supply. In a state plagued by low annual rainfall, the integrity of the water system formed a rallying point for property owners.

Ranchers' concerns for their water supply and other aspects of deactivation resulted in the resurrection of the South Dakota group, the Missile Area Landowners Association (MALA), a local ranching interest group that had been active during the early years of Air Force land acquisition for silo construction. MALA made property rights and potential civil problems they feared that might result from deactivation central issues in their negotiations with the Air Force. The group focused on potential damage to wells, the release of easements for the HICS on private land, and establishing the right of landowners to have the first opportunity to repurchase land once the Air Force was ready to sell the LF and LCF properties. Other issues included the disposal of gravel from the sites, which was a concern for landowners near Red Owl, in northern South Dakota, because it was expensive to get gravel to their part of the state. MALA also presented the option of retaining the silos for grain or water storage; however, this alternative violated the START Treaty and could not be pursued. Gene Williams and other members of MALA worked to bring attention to their cause and several national newspapers, including The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, and national television shows, including ABC Nightly News, CBS Evening News, and The Today Show. sent reporters to South Dakota. Williams summarized the group's efforts to protect their rights by stating, "It sure looked like we had an opportunity, maybe, to cut some deals for ourselves if we were going to give $100 million to the Ukraine we should be able to give some gravel to the guys around Red Owl."

MALA successfully lobbied South Dakota representatives to pass legislation specific to the deactivation of the LFs and LCFs, requiring the Air Force to give landowners the right of first refusal to purchase former silo sites located on their property at fair market value. Because the missiles at Ellsworth were the first ICBMs removed as part of the START Treaty, the land purchase rules established for South Dakota set the standard for missile sites across the country.

MALA did not successfully change the method used to destroy the silos. The Air Force had already established stringent specifications for vibration and sound for the implosion that would protect adjacent property. In addition, the Air Force had conducted studies to show that local wells and aquifers would remain intact during the implosion. The Air Force identified two sites for the contractor to demonstrate compliance with these specifications and many people observed the implosion of the first silo which proved to be uneventful. Many landowners were given the opportunity to push the button to implode the silo adjacent to their property. As part of the deactivation process, the Air Force also released its easements for HICS buried on private property. HICS is a hardened, pressurized, buried cable that allowed the LCFs and LFs at the 44th SMW to send messages between facilities. The release of over 2,800 easements for HICS suggests the number of property owners affected by the placement of this cable on their property.

The Air Force clearly spelled out procedures by which landowners might purchase former LFs and LCFs adjacent to their property. If multiple landowners held land adjacent to a missile site, the land was offered for sale to these owners in separate parcels. The General Services Administration (GSA), which coordinated the sale of the LFs and LCFs for the Air Force, offered these parcels to landowners at fair market value. If a landowner opted not to buy the land, the property was offered to government agencies first and if a government agency did not purchase the land, the property was offered for private bid. Property owners received written notice from GSA of the terms of the sale and had thirty days in which to accept the offer.

Owners who purchased the former LF sites received a level graded parcel covered with gravel and surrounded by a chain link fence. The former silo stood underneath the gravel, but the silo was filled with rubble and sealed with a reinforced-concrete cap. Deed restrictions on these former LF and LCF sites prohibit installing wells, digging below two feet in depth at LFs or digging over the capsules or elevator shaft at LCFs, and a requirement to maintain drainage on the property. In addition, the new owners of the LCFs could keep the buildings associated with the facility and gained the right to move the buildings, or reuse them for their own needs.

Once the Air Force completed deactivation of the 150 LFs and fifteen LCFs at Ellsworth Air Force Base, the missile sites began to be sold as excess government property. The last Minuteman II LF in South Dakota, Kilo-06, was imploded on 13 September 1996 and the Army Corps completed their deactivation work at the LFs and LCFs on 16 March 1999. After these activities were complete, the Air Force began environmental documentation at the sites in preparation for offering them for sale to adjacent landowners. Beginning in August 2001, the Air Force began selling the first former LF and LCF sites. By 2002 the LCFs had been sold to adjacent landowners, with the exception of Mike-01, which is in the process of being transferred to the Bureau of Land Management. Buildings at all fifteen of the LCFs remain, and one LCF support building complex is currently being used as a residence. The Air Force anticipates selling the remaining LFs by the end of 2003.