Applicant seeks to expand ballistics testing currently in place at former missile silo
By Gwendolyn Craig
Near a former Atlas F nuclear missile silo in Lewis, a national security consulting firm wants to fire military cannons into a pile of sand and use privately owned Big Church Mountain as a backstop.
Michael Hopmeier, president and principal investigator for Florida-based Unconventional Concepts Inc., said the Essex County site is perfect for testing the internal ballistics of U.S. military cannons. Big Church and Little Church mountains buffer the sound, its isolation allows for greater security, the area is already cleared and it’s not far (compared to other U.S. Army testing sites) from Benét Laboratories in Watervliet where the cannons are made.
Hopmeier has been operating indoor ballistics testing for smaller firearms at the former missile silo since 2018 or 2019, he said, but is now trying to move this latest project off-site to dampen the noise.
“We actually could have done all of that testing at the silo, but it would have made it a lot noisier,” Hopmeier said. “We wanted to be considerate to the local community.”
In an application to the Adirondack Park Agency, Hopmeier anticipated no more than three tests per month, one to three shots fired during each test. He is focused on analyzing the cannon’s tubes and recoiling systems.
The proposal is part of Hopmeier’s vision of an engineering hub in a bucolic Adirondack town with a population of about 1,300. He even dug a trench to install high-speed internet fiber to the silo site and surrounding neighbors.
In 2015, he created a limited liability company called Diversified Upstate Enterprises, which he said is the test branch of Unconventional Concepts. It contracts with branches of the Department of Defense, but also does research for other agencies. It has a full-time staff, and Hopmeier visits about once a month. The silo and laboratory are closed to the public.
The APA’s public comment period on the “shooting range” at Hale Hill Lane drew negative reactions from five sets of neighbors concerned about noise, quality of life and the environment. While the range is proposed on private property, it is a few miles west of the Jay Mountain Wilderness.
Hopmeier said the project is far from “a couple of rednecks playing and blowing holes in a mountain,” but rather 15 to 20 technicians focused on the instrumentation and calibration of military equipment. Benét Laboratories, Hopmeier said, is exploring new ways to manufacture the cannon barrels. The Army has used a chemical called hexavalent chromium to coat the gun barrels and make them last longer, Hopmeier said. But the compound is dangerous, he added, and can cause negative environmental impacts during the cannon’s manufacturing. The lab is experimenting with more “environmentally friendly” coatings, which Hopmeier said he will be testing in the field.
Hopmeier’s application states that the goal of the testing is “to decrease the weight of these systems to ensure the most efficient means of manufacturing and recurring cost of ownership, thereby reducing waste and cost, as well as improving performance,” but in an interview Hopmeier said his focus was validating the gun barrel plating.
“Size, weight and power, all of that is being done, we’re just not involved in that at the test range,” Hopmeier said.
Keith McKeever, spokesman for the APA, said the agency has never reviewed an application for a munitions testing facility before, and the application — for a new commercial use on rural use lands — is incomplete. Hopmeier’s application suggested the site could be ready by the end of July, but now he is hoping to start in a year or so. The cannon testing could go on for several years.
McKeever sent the Explorer the agency’s questions for Hopmeier including whether State Police and the U.S. Department of Justice had issued any necessary approvals. The agency is also looking for a coordinated review with the U.S. Army Development Command and an explanation about why the testing cannot be performed outside of the Adirondack Park.
Some of the information the APA seeks, Hopmeier said in the application records, is considered proprietary or is for the Army to answer. He told the Explorer it would be cost-prohibitive to conduct the testing any further from Watervliet, about 120 miles south of Lewis.
Adirondack Explorer contacted both Benét Laboratories and the U.S. Army’s press office about the project. Timothy Rider, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Army’s Development Command Armaments Center at the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, emailed that the current footprint of the Watervliet Arsenal “does not provide the necessary capacity to host such a ballistic testing facility.” Benét Laboratories and U.S. Army Tank and Automotive Command at the Watervliet Arsenal develop and produce large caliber guns, Rider said. The project proposed in the Adirondacks “will support the evaluation of interior ballistics for experimental cannons.”
“It is anticipated that this test capability will shorten the development cycle to prove state of the art technologies and concepts for exploration of future large caliber cannons,” Rider said.
Hopmeier proposed the location near his missile silo site and near the mining operation run by the owners of NYCO Minerals. The landowner, James Pulsifer, has lived in Lewis for his entire 71 years. Pulsifer owns about 2,000 acres, including part of Big Church Mountain, and runs a sawmill.
Hopmeier declined to discuss lease agreement details. Pulsifer said he’s not getting money for the arrangement other than any tax savings that might come from bolstering national security through Hopmeier’s consulting work. He also thinks the project would be good for the community.
“The way I look at it, he’s basically bringing in another bloodline of engineers and people of that caliber,” Pulsifer added. “I don’t want 1,000 people, but 15, 20 families in this area would really be a plus for us.”
Lewis Town Supervisor James Monty, 64, said he is in favor of the research and is also optimistic it would attract jobs. He likes bringing back the military’s historical presence, he said.
“It’s bringing money into the county; it’s bringing money into my little town; it’s providing information and data that can be used in defense of this country,” Monty said.
Not all Lewis residents extend the same welcome, letters to the APA suggest.
Daniel and Lanita Canavan said they were already fed up with the commotion coming from the munitions testing at the missile silo.
“We chose to live in a rural, typically quiet area and do not want the noise to impact our quality of life,” they said.
The Canavans also noted that Church Brook runs through the property and nearby homeowners use wells for drinking water. They worried that the property could become a toxic waste site.
Adriane and Eric Holland, owners of Magic Pines Campground in Lewis, said they were against the test range. Visitors, they said, come to relax and enjoy the quiet and peace of the Adirondacks. They expect that a weapons testing range would disturb guests.
Emma Jean Okusky wrote the APA worried about her water well, her house foundation and the well-being of her dogs and horses.
Hopmeier and Pulsifer are aware of their neighbors’ concerns, but hope some will be alleviated once they learn more about the project. Hopmeier resents comments about turning the area into a toxic waste site, noting his work cleaning up the former missile silo.
Neither Pulsifer nor Hopmeier condones testing explosives on the property, and both stress the infrequent number of cannon fires compared to a backyard shooting range. It can take three to four days to get the cannon into position, Hopmeier said. Since his focus is on what’s happening inside of the cannon, that, too, takes time to analyze.
Hopmeier said there is no need for residents to be concerned about pollution, too, because the projectile in the cannon is made of non-toxic steel. It will be shot across the 330-yard range into crushed stone aggregate from the former NYCO Minerals site called Oak Hill Mine. The system involves a “soft catch,” meaning the missile usually remains intact and gets recovered, as opposed to hitting a hard object to cause an explosion. It’s not difficult to find the 80- to 100-pound slug, Hopmeier added.
There are no wetlands on site, according to the application. The area is already cleared of trees from Pulsifer’s logging operation. There are logging roads to the site. Hopmeier wants to maintain the surrounding forest to keep a real-world military operation feel during his data collection.
Hopmeier referenced sound studies in his APA application that show the Pulsifer’s residence will receive the brunt of the occasional booms outside of the testing site. The noise doesn’t bother Pulsifer. He pointed to the sawmill machinery, trucks and mining operations that are already bustling around him.
Hopmeier plans to alert residents one week in advance of any missile fires, which will occur weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. He will use an alert system similar to that of the local mine, and will notify law enforcement. Hopmeier said blasts will sound like a thunderbolt to most of the other area homes.
Hopmeier said there will always be some neighbors against change, no matter the project.
“I recognize there’s a balance,” he said. “The reason we want to do it here rather than anyplace else is we have all the experience and equipment and capability here.”