LETHAL BREEZE
By Lee Davidson, Correspondent
Deseret News Sunday, June 5, 1994
 

===In decades of secret chemical arms tests, the Army released into Utah winds more than a half-million pounds of deadly nerve agents.
===A pinhead-size drop of the nerve agent VX on one's skin, weighing seven-millionths of a pound, can be lethal - meaning the Army spread enough outdoors in Utah to make 3.5 trillion such potentially deadly drops.
===
Most of the nerve gas was likely contained inside the Rhode Island-sized Dugway Proving Ground - but evidence suggests some may have escaped with the wind.
===
Such experiments occurred amid hundreds of other Utah tests with germ and radiation weapons - meaning Utah may not have been a very healthy place during the Cold War.
===
The chemical arms data is disclosed through documents just obtained by the Deseret News through a Freedom of Information Act request.
===
The information contained in the documents is the first to show Army estimates of just how many open-air nerve-agent tests occurred at Dugway and how much nerve agent was released.

Exact numbers

===The documents list 1,635 field trials or demonstrations with nerve agents VX, GA and GB between 1951 and 1969 - when the Army discontinued use of actual nerve agents in open-air tests after escaped nerve gas apparently killed 6,000 sheep in Skull Valley.
===
Open-air tests using less dangerous simulants continued afterward, although some say the simulants are also dangerous.
===
The open-air trials of real nerve agent used 55,160 chemical rockets, artillery shells, bombs and land mines at Dugway.
===
Those munitions - plus tests of airplane spray tanks, protective gear and early disposal methods - used at least 494,700 pounds of nerve agent, according to a summary of the tests the Army prepared in 1971.
===
But that does not include the amount used in what documents estimated were 400 demonstrations of nerve agent weapons that occurred almost weekly for 10 years for a Dugway chemical school - which could add thousands of pounds to the total.

Did some of agent escape?

===Documents raise questions about whether agent escaped from the base during tests, and - if so - how much.
===
The strongest case showing some likely did was a March 13, 1968, test in which a F-4E Phantom streaked around Dugway at 500 knots an hour, dropping 2,730 pounds of agent VX at 200 to 500 feet above ground level at a target near Granite Mountain.
===
"It was estimated that 44 to 73 percent of the agent fill was deposited within one mile of the release line," an Army summary said.
===
That, of course, means 27-56 percent of the agent also traveled farther than the mile downwind where monitors tracked it. And the next day, 6,000 sheep began dying 25 miles downwind in Skull Valley outside the Dugway base boundaries.
===
The Army never admitted fault in the mysterious sheep deaths but paid $1 million in restitution. Until now, it had never even openly said VX was the agent used in tests that day - although outside scientists assumed it was.
===
The nerve agent VX is "so toxic that 3-4 milligrams (a drop the size of pinhead) on the bare skin may cause death," Army documents state. In the air, they say the "median lethal dosage" is 100 milligrams per minute per cubic meter. GB has the same "median lethal dosage" in the air, but documents do not list how lethal it is to the touch.
===
Documents further state that VX may act in as little as 15 minutes or take as long as two hours. "It evaporates so slowly that it remains on the ground for days, making the area extremely dangerous."
===
A once-classified U.S. Chemical Corps history says VX was accidentally discovered by a British chemical company trying to develop more powerful pesticides, and soldiers started to "nickname the compounds `V-agents' because of their venomous nature."
===
As a Deseret News probe last year also said, the sheep-kill incident may have hurt humans too - although the Army denies it.
===
Ray Peck, who was outside working on a Skull Valley ranch during the May 13, 1968, incident, and members of his family developed nervous-system illnesses for years afterwards, similar to ills reported by people exposed to low levels of VX in lab experiments.
===
Also, the probe showed that medical tests the Army had used to claim humans were not affected are now considered inconclusive, and the Pecks had showed other signs of low-level VX exposure.

Other possible escapes

===Similar to the sheep-kill incident, several other tests had large percentages of nerve agent float beyond test grids - but that does not necessarily mean they went beyond Dugway borders.
===
One test almost totally missed its target grid.
===
"On Trial D-1, the major portion of the pattern was deposited before the aircraft was over the sampling grid," a document says about an April 18, 1962, test with 203 pounds of VX dropped from an aircraft drone.
===
Lists show four other aircraft spray tests that had agent recovery rates lower than the 44 percent low-end range mentioned for the "sheep kill" test - but recovery rates are not mentioned for most tests.

They are:

- A Sept. 13, 1962, test that dropped 2,800 pounds of VX, but only 4 percent of the VX reached =the ground in the test grid area.
- An identical test on Aug. 9, 1962, that listed an 11 percent recovery rate.
- A Sept. 14, 1962, test with a 24 percent recovery rate.
- A May 22, 1962, test with 662 pounds of VX that had a 34.3 percent recovery rate.

===Besides aircraft spray tests, trials with other types of munitions often had relatively low recovery rates of nerve agent on test grids too.
===
For example, tests for 155 mm artillery shells had recovery rates between 16 and 60 percent when listed. Sometimes shells missed targets. Documents about a September 1961 test said, "Four volleys of six rounds were fired; however, six rounds were observed to be either ground bursts or off-target airbursts."
===
Some arms tests occurred even in high wind. A report of a March 1964 test of a VX artillery shell said, "although this test was a high-wind speed trial (21 mph at 50 feet), the agent recovery within the target area was approximately 40 percent."
===
And some bomb tests came from high altitude. For example, tests of a 750-pound bomb at Dugway and Eglin Air Force Base with nerve agent GB were dropped "from altitudes of 40,000 feet at speeds of 450 knots" although they exploded on the ground or at low altitude.
===
Most tests spread nerve agent at relatively low altitudes, and some tests had up to 100 percent recovery on test grids.

Demonstrating death

===Some of the testing was designed solely to impress military officials and others with how deadly chemical arms are.

===From September 1959 to June 1969, Dugway was the site of a Chemical-Biological-Radiological Weapons Orientation Course for the military and the Central Intelligence Agency. It was held 40 weeks a year for those 10 years.
 
===For each session, the Army conducted "a demonstration in which 12 M121A1 GB projectiles were fired to impact within a target area instrumented with chemical sampling."
 
===Documents add, "The reactions of various laboratory animal species located in fortifications were observed via closed circuit television."
 
===Watching such animals die apparently made an impression. A Chemical Corps history said, "Some officers of flag rank called it the best Department of Army school they had ever attended."
 
===Previously obtained documents said one such demonstration also occurred the day before the mysterious sheep deaths in 1968.

Tests on humans?

Most open-air trials were designed to test new weapon systems. But 134 "trials have been conducted at Dugway to determine the hazard to personnel in the immediate area or downwind of aircraft accidents, decontamination operations and munition disposal operations," documents state.

That included:

- 26 tests on how to handle leaky nerve agent GB munitions on airplanes. - One test that burned a = B-24 bomber fuselage that contained GB munitions to see what danger it posed.
- At least five trials to study combat operations in an area contaminated with VX.
- At least six open-air field tests of protective over garments that used live nerve agent.

===Such documents suggest - but do not specifically say - that humans were involved in danger areas.
===
However, the Army was using human subjects in somewhat similar germ and drug tests conducted at the same time. An earlier Desert News probe showed the Army used volunteers in a 1954 open-air germ weapons test to see if a Q fever weapon could infect them. It did.
===
A different Deseret News probe also showed that as part of tests to see how germ warfare might disperse, the Army dropped toxic cadmium sulfide over cities throughout the East and over some public lands in Utah - even though tests showed for years that drop could be deadly.

Testing with simulants

===Besides the testing with real nerve agent, documents show the Army conducted many open-air tests in the 1951-69 period with simulants - or less dangerous chemicals that simulate some properties of nerve agent. Some critics say they are dangerous, too.
===
Documents show 52 open-air trials using 93,500 pounds of simulant used in the period.
===
One simulant often used was called BIS - which has continued to be used through the years. It was dangerous enough that recent Army documents said employees should use gas masks when exposed to its vapor.
===
Other simulants through the years caused controversy, including some this year on the chemical dimethyl methylphosphonate.
===
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee heard testimony from Earl P. Davenport of Tooele, a former Dugway worker, how he has been sick with respiratory and heart problems ever since he was accidentally sprayed with it.
===
The Army had quit using it in open-air tests after it found the chemical may cause cancer.

Defending the nation

===Documents show the Army believed testing was protecting soldiers and the nation against chemical attack. It helped develop weapons that could be used in retaliation to scare would-be attackers. And it developed protective clothing and medical antidotes.
===
Possibly because Army officers sometimes believed they were losing this battle, the Army might have increased testing at Dugway.
===
For example, a once-secret report from 1958 - when Army officials were worried about lack of funding - said, "The cold, brutal fact is that despite the (Chemical) Corps' efforts, we are little more prepared for chemical and biological warfare in 1958 than we were in 1950.
===
"More alarming, based on the best available intelligence, there is every indication to believe that our CBR (chemical-biological-radiological) capabilities are rapidly becoming inferior to the enemy, who appears to be ever increasing his emphasis in this area," it said.
===
The Army's efforts were at least partially successful. Chemical warfare was never used by an enemy against the United States during Cold War.
===
However, the weapons developed from the tests are all soon to be destroyed nationwide, as ordered by Congress because they are aging and deteriorating. Pentagon officials told Congress last month they would never use chemical weapons again because better means of retaliation are available.
===
The Army continues work on defensive gear against chemical weapons, and still tests new developments at Dugway - but in labs or with simulants.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

 

Nerve agent testing: 1951-1969

Amount of nerve agent used in secret chemical arms tests conducted at
Dugway Proving Ground, Utah.
 

    1  NUMBER OF OPEN-AIR TRIALS
    2  NUMBER OF MUNITIONS (GB,GA,VX) USED
    3  TOTAL POUNDS NERVE AGENT

 

DISPERSAL METHOD

1

2

3


Aerial spray tanks     26   N/A  53,700
Projectiles    458 10,570  41,200
Land mines     -     14     900
Bomblets    175    175   1,100
Bombs    123    137  24,100
Rockets     53    629   8,200
Missiles 6      6     11   1,400
Aerosol generator     60   N/A   1,000
Disposal operations     52 38,824 362,100
Other defensive tests     69   N/A   1,000
Weekly demonstrations    400  4,800   N/A

TOTAL  1,422 55,160 494,700
 

 

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