Sources: THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE Dates: 1/27/93, 7/28/93, Titles: “Army Resumes Biological Agent Tests At Dugway After 10Year Cessation;” “Dugway to test disease-causing agents at remote lab,” Author: Jim Woolf, Date: 9/21/93, Title: “Dugway Base Cited for 22 Waste Violations,” Author: Laurie Sullivan; HIGH COUNTRY NEWS, Date: 8/9/93, Title: “Blowarfare is back,” Author: Jon Christensen; HIGH DESERT ADVOCATE, Date: 9/15/93, Title: “Utah biowarfare oversight group wants to do its work behind closed doors”
SYNOPSIS: Although few people outside of Dugway, Utah, are aware of it, the U.S. Army has brought biological warfare testing back to a site it declared unsafe a decade earlier.
Ten years ago, residents of western Utah breathed a healthy sigh of relief when the Army discontinued testing biological warfare agents at its Dugway Proving Ground. The reason given was that the Army’s testing facility was getting old, and its safety-its ability to prevent potentially deadly diseases from escaping into the air outside the facility and thence to the rest of the world-could no longer be guaranteed. Now the deadly bugs are back.
Military scientists are testing a device called the Biological Integrated Detection System (BIDS) at the renovated Dugway facility. BIDS is described as a defensive weapon, designed to detect the presence of biological agents in time to allow soldiers to put on protective clothing.
A Dugway representative said the tests, which include organisms such as anthrax, botulism, and the plague, would initially be liquid, not aerosol, tests. Aerosol tests are the most hazardous form of testing because they involve spraying biological agents into the air inside a sealed chamber. One tiny air leak could result in a catastrophic release of deadly diseases. It was precisely this hazard that led to the closing of the Dugway facility in 1983. The biowarfare lab has been renovated since then and Army experts claim their elaborate safety precautions will prevent such a leak.
Nonetheless, new safety concerns were raised in September 1993, when the Dugway Proving Ground was cited for 22 violations of state hazardous-waste regulations, ranging from inadequate record-keeping to improper dumping of poisonous chemicals. Notices of violation and orders for compliance were issued to the Army base by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
Critics also point out that it was the Army that denied for a year that it was responsible for the 1968 accidental release of nerve gas from Dugway that killed some 6,000 sheep in the area.
Finally, public information about what was happening at Dugway suffered a serious setback in September 1993, when the biowarfare oversight committee that advises the governor of Utah on biological defense testing matters at Dugway voted to make itself off limits to the public. Reasoning that they could obtain more information from the Army if confidentiality could be assured, the oversight group also voted to disengage from its parent organization, the State Advisory Council on Science and Technology. The committee had been frustrated by its inability to get timely information from Dugway.
Critics doubt the committee will have access to any more information than it has received in the past and that the net result only further distances the Army from accountability and the public from the truth.
SSU Censored Researcher: Jesse Boggs
COMMENTS: Jim Woolf, environmental writer for The Salt Lake Tribune, said he was surprised by the lack of attention this story generated. “It was treated as a local story that had little significance to the general public,” Woolf said, adding, “I disagree.”
Woolf felt the general public should know more about this story for at least three reasons:
“1. This is an important local story. Military scientists near my home are conducting tests with some of the most deadly disease causing organisms and natural toxins ever identified. What if some of these `bugs’ escape into the environment or are carried by workers into my community? Are local doctors trained to recognize and deal with this threat? Has the Army taken all prudent steps to reduce the risk? Has the public been told the full scope of testing being carried out by the Army?
“2. Biological and chemical weapons have been described as the `poor man’s atomic bomb.’ They are relatively easy to produce and could have devastating consequences in battle. Several of our enemies are known or suspected to have these weapons. All announced testing at Dugway focuses on developing systems to protect American troops from these weapons. (The development or testing of OFFENSIVE biological or chemical systems is prohibited under international treaties.) Work in this field would be of general interest to military families and. others who may feel threatened by this category of weapon.
“3. The resumption of testing and plans to build an, upgraded research laboratory at Dugway could have important consequences for America’s international relations. Critics claim there is no clear line dividing defensive from offensive testing — the scientific knowledge gained at Dugway can be used for either good or bad. Does the resumption of this testing send a message to other countries that the United States is interested in biochem warfare? Will it prompt other countries to upgrade their test facilities and lead to an escalation in the race to produce ever-more-deadly weapons?”
Woolf felt that the interests of several groups were served by the limited coverage given the resumption of biowarfare testing.
“The Army was pleased. Military scientists want freedom to study whatever they want, no matter how dangerous or far-fetched the potential threat may be. The last thing they want are questions from the public or elected officials.
“Congress was served because members were not required to confront another potentially controversial issue. A handful of members interested in military issues are responsible for most of the funding decisions in this area. If there is no controversy, no one else has to confront the difficult questions surrounding this topic.
“Certain economic interests in Utah and elsewhere were served. Dugway provides jobs in a remote area of the state. If biological testing were eliminated or scaled back, the Army would have fewer reasons to maintain the base. Also, handful of companies are developing products and services related to biological-defense. None would like to see their income potential reduced.”
Woolf notes that the resumption of biological testing has been a difficult issue in Utah and concludes with a chilling question.
“The presence of these deadly agents so close to our community is a source of concern, but we watched on CNN the terror in Israel during the Iraq war when no one knew whether the bombs that were falling contained chemical or biological weapons. We understand the need to improve our defenses, but wonder why it has to be done in our backyard, whether there are safer alternatives, and whether all safety precautions have been taken.
“We’re also frightened that the Army may not be telling the whole truth — that in times of emergency they will cover their operations with the national security veil and do whatever they think is right, regardless of the threat to their neighbors. Utahns learned this lesson living downwind from the nuclear-weapons tests at the Nevada Test Site.
“Will the clouds of radioactive material be followed by the plague?”
Jon Christensen, Great Basin Regional Editor for the High Country News, agreed that there hasn’t been sufficient coverage of this issue. “The only papers to cover the story adequately were The Salt Lake Tribune and the High Desert Advocate, in Wendover, Nevada.” Without their coverage, Christensen felt that we all might have missed this story about the resumption of biowarfare testing at Dugway, Utah. He feels it is important for people to know about this issue since they “might better understand the domestic costs and risks of preparing for war, many of which are borne by remote, rural Western communities (among others). Also, our stockpile of dangerous chemical weapons and biological agents must be stored and destroyed safely. The public needs to know how” Christensen emphasized that “The regional media deserve credit for following this story. Without them, we would all be in the dark about this.”