Proving Ground Attracts International Attention

Last Thursday, the Jefferson Proving Ground was mentioned by a major publication from the United Kingdom. Richard Schiffmanm, wrote the following for his online story at The Guardian.

Weapons testing grounds are another place where toxic contaminants accumulate. The 100sq m Jefferson Proving Grounds near Madison, Indiana, for example, has been fenced off and abandoned because the land is deemed too dangerous to clean up.

His story was on the broader problem of the environmental effects of warfare, specifically to soldiers and community nearby.

“Too Dangerous” is Our Backyard

Despite her natural beauty, Madison has never been overly conscious of environmental damage. We are home to a state park and coal power plant, side-by-side. Local historians will tell you that our “Tree City” was once a very dirty place to live – with heavy industry, slaughterhouses, and residential neighborhoods all in the same vicinity. Not to mention Marble Hill and our brush with the Nuclear Power industry.

The ghosts of our Jefferson Proving Ground are known far and wide. Maybe other communities can learn from this anecdote of environmental damage. But at the end of the day, it’s just something we ignore. What’s 70,000 kg of depleted uranium in your backyard?

You can learn more about this decommissioned army facility from the State IDEM article, the Federal NRC article  or from Wikipedia.


  1. Ron H. says:

    The Jefferson Proving Ground was taken over in 1939 as preparation for WW II as an Army ammunition testing facility. The above story indicates that it was recently “fenced off and abandoned because the land is deemed too dangerous to clean up.” While it is true that there are many dangerous areas within the facility, the actual fact is that the fence was erected in late 1939 and put up so fast for the war effort that it went right through the middle of a barn, all prior to the firing of the first round of ammunition. The first shot was fired in May 1940, just 6 months after the public announcement that the government would be purchasing the land for the testing facility.

    Over the years, the Army tested ammunition to insure that the ammunition and the weapons that OUR military would use would be safe to handle by our troops. Ammunition that was tested as safe to handle, made it into war zones during WWII, Korea, and Viet-Nam.

    Several million rounds of ammunition were fired, as part of the testing, and while most rounds were meant to explode on impact, it is estimated that as many as 1 million rounds failed their test and did NOT explode and are still considered live hazardous ordinance.

    Additionally, there were low level radioactive tracers fired from tanks which accounts for the depleted uranium that was mentioned above. The article seems to indicate that this depleted uranium has caused environmental damage with “70,000 kg” left in our back yard.

    Having worked in three different nuclear power plants as a Radiation Protection Technician, I can honestly state that it is not the amount of depleted uranium that should be a concern, rather exposure to radiation is measured in the proximity and time of exposure. Since the depleted uranium is in a completely non-authorized access area in the center of the 55,000 acres of land that makes up the Jefferson Proving Ground, NOONE is being exposed to radiation from these tracers as they are located aprox. 4 miles interior from the outter perimeter fence. Additionally, since they are low level radiation – it is actually safe to enter the areas where the tracers are located provided that there is not a long term exposure. In other words, you wouldn’t want to stay there for a few days, however, a visit of less than 24 hours would not bring the exposure of an individual up to the level of a nuclear plant radiation worker with 1 month of exposure – (which is allowed 1000 millirem exposure per month).

    As to the 1 million rounds of ammunition that did not explode, the Army had assigned “hazardous” areas where these rounds were located and restricted entry to individuals that were working at JPG and familiar with the potential hazards of entering the areas. During the entire time that JPG was in operation there wasn’t ANY accidents associated with a JPG employee (or their guest) encountering an unexploded shell for a 100% safety record.

    As to the land being “abandoned”, this is completely erroneous. When the JPG facility closed in 1995, there were several proposals as to the re-use of the facility, including turning it into a large farming facility for Rose Acres Farms, or turning it into a prision, or the proposal that was accepted and put into place. The facility was turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife for a National Wildlife Refuge, making it the largest wildlife habitate east of the Mississippi River.

    While much of the area that makes up the now formed “Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge” has been closed off for public use, the reason mainly seems to be that officials of the US Fish and Wildlife had no background experience with the Army ammunition testing that went on there prior to their takeover. Since they have no experience as to the dangers that may be there, they have adopted a policy of “better safe than sorry” and closed many areas that were open to the public during the Army ownership to insure that noone accidentally gets hurt. While it is understandable that they do not want to take the risk, it means that large areas of land has been determined to be hazardous that was not considered to be so under the previous ownership. This just means that large areas of the 55,000 acres are now completely owned by the resident wildlife without any human interference.

    The Big Oaks Wildlife Refuge does indeed allow people to enter the facility for various activities including picture taking, hunting, fishing, and sight seeing, just to name a few, however, anyone wishing to enter will be assigned an area that is considered by the US Fish and Wildlife to be entirely safe for human traffic.

    As to the facility being a “good neighbor” within the community. During the years of operation, the civilian JPG staff were many times volunteers in helping with community projects. For several years, JPG sponsored the Madison Regatta fireworks program and donated the cranes and personnel to place the hydroplanes in and out of the water.

    The most dramatic assistance that JPG personnel provided to the community was in 1974 when a tornado destroyed the local towns of Hanover and Madison and caused widespread damage throughout the entire mid-western parts of the United States. During this national disaster, JPG acted as a staging faciltiy to provide disaster relief to the entire southeastern part of the state of Indiana. Several tornadoes were tracked and involved, and assisted living house trailers, and living kits of clothing, dishes, towels, bedding, and cleaning supplies where distributed from this government facility.

    The actual closing of the facility in 1995 caused the loss of several hundred jobs in the economic community and not only was a local business lost, but many felt that a “good neighbor” had been closed.

    Today, along with the Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge support group, there is a group called the Jefferson Proving Ground Heritage Partnership that has a goal of keeping the actual story of the JPG Army facility available for others to learn about what took place there. This group has published several books on the subject as well as creating a public display at the Jefferson County Historical Society. Anyone wishing to obtain more information about operations of the Jefferson Proving Ground or it’s history prior to the government take over of the land in 1939 is invited to contact a member. Their website is located at:

    • steve welling says:

      how do you know there were not nuclear armed shells used at this site? I live near Fernald in Harrison ohio, and they lied to residents about contamination in wells and airborne radiation. some waste was incinerated lots of us have cisterns. The cancer rate for residents is higher around this plant. Also at General Electric Evendale ohio, there was an advanced nuclear program during the early sixties citizens were not aware of. If the Govt was honest about this stuff you could work with them better, lots of blue collar workers were exposed to radiation and did not know of the severity. how do you know this low level radiation is all on site, it can blow or leach into wells. I am no expert in radiation , but what I do know first hand is that people exposed to radiation have a higher cancer rate. All over the country there are places
      where people are finding out about radiation they were exposed to and it was covered up. No arguments with your article it was well written and truthful, I just come at it from a different point of view because of my own personal experiences.