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The short list of potential Utah prison sites hit like a bomb, shaking up targeted communities. Residents held hastily planned protests, mayors threatened to withhold utilities and warned of expensive environmental lawsuits.

In the midst of the turmoil, state Sen. Jerry Stevenson, a co-chairman of the Prison Relocation Commission, came up with an idea. Why not build a new penitentiary at the site of the old Deseret Chemical Depot, where the military once destroyed some of the world's most dangerous weapons?

With that mission largely complete, the Army has knocked down many of the buildings at that remote site east of Rush Valley in Tooele County and has handed control over to the Tooele Army Depot.

Stevenson, R-Layton, thought it had all kinds of potential. It was remote enough that it was unlikely to draw community outrage, the land is owned by the government and it already has utilities running to it.

"It is a little farther away, but boy we would save a lot of money with that," he said.

Stevenson dispatched a state lawyer and the commission's paid consultant to check it out.

The idea turned out to be a dud, because a prison there would be regularly rocked with the aftershocks of major explosions as the military destroys unwanted bombs.

When U.S. Army Col. Roger McCreery, the depot's commander, explained his plan for the area, state attorney Paul Morris turned to prison consultant Bob Nardi and said: "Hey, you know what, maybe this is not the best location."

McCreery agrees. He expects to complete a complicated permitting process with state officials late this summer that will allow him to shift the destruction of discarded munitions from the depot's north site, which is only a few miles from Grantsville, to this more remote southern site.

That site is 19,000 acres and the state is looking for only 500 acres for a new prison site. The problem is that nothing is allowed to be built in the blast radius of massive bombs and missiles still housed in concrete igloos built in the 1940s and 1950s. That eliminates about 80 percent of the land, meaning a new prison could only be built a few miles from new, bigger detonation pits that will allow McCreery's team to destroy far more bullets and bombs than they are destroying now and in much larger explosions.

Even if the prison was built several miles away, the employees and inmates would feel the constant reverberations and hear the repeated blasts, raising the prospect of lawsuits over emotional distress. McCreery posed the scenario of an employee who is a veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

The depot has two main jobs. It houses munitions for all of the military services and destroys obsolete or unstable ordnance.

In the north site, just a few miles from Grantsville, depot employees have 19 detonation pits. They take unwanted ammunition, everything from .45 caliber bullets to 500-pound conventional bombs, and place it in one of these pits, which look like underground troughs. Crews then cover it with about 15 inches of dirt and blow it up. They can place up to 750 pounds of ammunition in each of the pits and they can only explode it 90 days per year, when the weather wouldn't blow the dust into the nearby city.

The plan is to shift this work to the south site, where the military once destroyed old chemical weapons. McCreery envisions 25 detonation pits that can each handle 3,000 pounds of ammunition and an expanded schedule.

While this will mean greater efficiency and cost savings for the military, it spelled premature death for Stevenson's idea of settling the prison-relocation debate.

"The chance of moving it there is zero, so we'll go from there," he said.

The Prison Relocation Commission has just three remaining sites on its short list: one west of the Salt Lake City International Airport, one near the Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele County and one at the south end of Eagle Mountain in Utah County.

The commission has said it will accept new site proposals through the end of January, and while some have been submitted, Stevenson said none of them have held much promise. Like the Army depot site, each had a fatal flaw.

Twitter: @mattcanham