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US Army Dugway Proving Ground:
Basin for Bio-testing
by Steve Erickson,
Citizens Education Project of Salt Lake City
Dugway is located about 75 miles west of Salt Lake City. It is a restricted military reservation that encompasses 3,200 square kilometers, some 800,000 acres or about the size of Rhode Island, in the Utah portion of the Great Basin. The Great Basin is a unique geographic region that stretches from the Wasatch Front east of Salt Lake City to the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the west, from southern Idaho and Nevada on the north to the Colorado River Basin and the Mohave Desert on the south. It is characterized throughout by 9–12,000 foot mountain ranges running north and south, with broad high desert valleys in between. There is very little rainfall, and all rivers and streams flow into inland lakes—no water escapes the Basin, hence its name. It’s like the bottom of the sink—some might say a toilet bowl. It’s a harsh environment, very sparsely populated, starkly beautiful with vast vistas—some might say desolate and useless. For these reasons, the Basin has long attracted a wide variety of hazardous industries and military activities and testing, including testing weapons of mass destruction.
In Utah and Nevada, we got the lower-tech, nasty back-end of that sort of R & D: nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site, biological and chemical testing at Dugway. In fact, Dugway is surrounded by two chemical weapons incinerators (one mountain range to the east), a radioactive waste dump, an Air Force bombing range, a hazardous waste landfill, and a hazardous waste incinerator to the north. The airspace above and all around Dugway is the Utah test and training range, home to supersonic and electronic warfare training. At the doorstep of Dugway, on the tiny Goshute Indian Reservation, a temporary storage facility for the nation’s high level spent nuclear fuel rods is planned.
Dugway is surrounded by two chemical weapons incinerators…, a radioactive waste dump, an Air Force bombing range, a hazardous waste landfill, and a hazardous waste incinerator to the north.
Dugway pre-dates all of that, established in 1942 to host World War II training and weapons development. A German village at Dugway was used to determine how best to use incendiary bombs to fire bomb Dresden and other German cities. Japan Village was used to perfect flame throwers to combat Japanese soldiers hunkered in Pacific caves. After the war, the mission evolved into the testing of chemical, biological and radiological weapons, as Dugway emerged as the center for open air testing for the Army’s Test and Evaluation Command (TECOM). Throughout the 1950s and 60s and into the mid-70s, Dugway conducted over 1,000 open air chemical weapons tests with GB, VX and mustard agents, over 200 open air biological weapons tests involving a potpourri of pathogens, and nearly two dozen open air radiological tests, most involving radioactive tantalum, but using radioactive cobalt 60 on at least one occasion.
Many of these tests involved human participants—civilian workers and military personnel—and some used military volunteers in what can only be described as human experimentation. Seventh Day Adventists volunteered for Operation Whitecoat, headquartered out of Ft. Detrick, MD, participating in dozens of tests over more than a decade in which they were deliberately exposed to biological pathogens. In one Whitecoat test performed at Dugway, Adventist volunteers sat on a hillside with their shirts off waiting to be bitten by infected mosquitos released by Dugway to determine the effectiveness of using insects as vectors to deliver biological weapons. Other Dugway tests of this period exposed soldiers to hallucinogenic BZ gas, tests reminiscent of the CIA’s human experimentation with LSD.
…this was the first, maybe only, time that a grass roots citizens movement stopped a biological weapons development.
Soldiers were regularly exposed to clouds of sarin and VX nerve agent to test the effectiveness of their protective gear. Dugway was also in the forefront of Project 112, also known as Project SHAD, which involved hundreds of tests exposing thousands of US sailors in the Pacific to nerve and germ agents. Dispersion modeling tests using live agent and simulants were routine. Slurries full of Q Fever (coxiella burnetti) were splattered across the Dugway desert, even crossing over what is now Interstate 80 on occasion. One test involving the US Weather Service was continental in scope, spreading cadmium sulfide from airplanes near the Canadian border to see if a germ warfare attack could affect huge areas.
The cavalier, cowboy style of WMD testing came under intense scrutiny when, in 1968, over 6000 sheep in the Skull Valley bordering Dugway died grisly deaths from VX released from Dugway. The Army denied any involvement, claiming the sheep died from malnutrition and eating noxious weeds, but quietly compensated the sheep ranchers. The Army finally did acknowledge its guilt 3 or 4 years ago, and dug up the mass sheep grave to see if there was any danger from residual nerve agent in the sheep bones (there was not).
The sheep incident, followed three years later by the ratification of the Biological Weapons Convention, signaled an end to much of the outdoor testing of actual agent. Tests with actual agent were moved inside secure laboratories, but simulants of agent (such as BT and seratia marsesens) continued to be tested in the open air. In the mid to late 1980s, Dugway proposed construction of a Bio-Safety Level 4 lab, the Biological Aerosol Test Facility, to replace the aging Baker Lab. Concerns about Dugway playing with the deadliest of pathogens and possibly genetically engineering them in the secrecy of the desert created a huge outcry, and the Army was forced to abandon the plan after an eight-month campaign by the opposition. To my knowledge, this was the first, maybe only, time that a grass roots citizens movement stopped a biological weapons development. Nonetheless, Dugway succeeded three years later, under the cover of the first Gulf War with Iraq, in winning approval for a BSL 3-Plus lab, the Lothar Solomon Life Sciences Test Facility, which is now the key bio-defense research facility at Dugway.
Today, Dugway is preparing a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), planning to more than double its biological defense activities, double its chemical defense program, and create a new counter-terrorism training mission. This massive expansion of Dugway’s role involves at least seven new facilities and renovations of three others. It’s a troubling, perhaps dangerous and destabilizing, development which of course will take place with the extraordinary secrecy that is the hallmark of Dugway’s modus operandi. Obviously, given their track record, this expansion is not to be trusted.
Dugway also refused to provide us, the press, and the public any information whatsoever regarding Dugway’s assistance of the FBI investigation into the anthrax letter attacks of fall 2001.
In fact the trust level is not improving. We have had unanswered for eight months now our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a list of all the pathogens that Dugway maintains in its inventory (stored in what we refer to as Pandora’s Icebox). Dugway also refused to provide us, the press, and the public any information whatsoever regarding Dugway’s assistance of the FBI investigation into the anthrax letter attacks of fall 2001. Dugway itself was under suspicion as the source for the Ames strain of anthrax, but has cooperated with the FBI by “reverse engineering” the strain of anthrax that they may have been the source of in the first place. Adding fuel to that fire was the admission last fall by Dugway that they had been secretly producing anthrax since 1991—in direct contradiction to repeated assurances they have made for two decades that they do not produce agent!
Gearing up at Dugway is part and parcel of the Bush Administration’s huge build-up of the military and bio-defense business, including the proliferation of BSL 4 and 3 labs across the country. We need all the help we can get to avoid once again becoming the toilet bowl for testing
This article is based on the author’s presentation at Biodevastation 7, held May 16–18, 2003 in St. Louis MO.
[7 apr 04]