A mighty wind: Nerve gas, six thousand dead sheep, and Soviet trickery

[Continuing our series on deception in politics and policy.]

In 1969, President Nixon renounced the use of biological weapons by the United States and set in motion the process that would lead to a complete international ban on such weapons. The Soviets, who agreed to the ban, took it as an opportunity to conduct the largest covert scientific program in the history of the world, to develop diabolical weapons based on such diseases as anthrax, smallpox, and plague (as in the Black Death).

One incident, more than any other public event, led to Nixon’s decision. The same incident helped spawn Earth Day and the modern environmentalist movement. It inspired a famous horror novel, a famous actor’s debut as a film director, and episodes of a TV detective show. It launched the investigative reporting career of one of America’s best known journalists.

It could not have had a greater impact if it had actually happened.

This is the story of the Dugway sheep.

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The single event that played the greatest role in causing the U.S. renunciation of biological weapons occurred, or did not occur, on March 13, 1968.   The U.S. Army conducted a nerve agent test and, within days, thousands of sheep were dead.   All hell broke loose.

The text involved an agent called VX which, like other nerve agents, interferes with the operation of the nervous system.

Here’s how: Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter – that is, it transmits signals from one nerve ending to the next.  In simple terms, acetylcholine serves as an “on” switch for nerves, and the enzyme cholinesterase neutralizes it, serving as an “off” switch.  Nerve agents such as sarin (GB), soman (GD), and VX inhibit the operation of cholinesterase, leaving nerves stuck in the “on” position.  Victims of nerve gas, unable to control their bodies, usually go into convulsions and die from asphyxiation.

Nerve agents are usually called “nerve gases,” but they are not gases; they are liquids delivered in an aerosol spray.

They are classified as “nonpersistent” (they are volatile, relatively quick to evaporate, and unlikely to remain long where sprayed) or “persistent” (they might remain in an area at deadly concentrations for as much as a week or two).  Sarin, for example, is classified as nonpersistent, while VX is persistent.

Indeed, VX is viscous, has the consistency of motor oil, and falls to the ground quickly.  The volatility of VX – measured by the approximate amount of agent (in milligrams) that one cubic meter of air can hold at 25°C (77°F) – is 10.  (That compares to 22,000 for sarin and 1,000,000 for hydrogen cyanide.)  Needless to say, VX doesn’t travel very far in the open air.[1]

Colorless and odorless, the “gas” form of VX is made up of airborne particles that settle on the ground and are slow to evaporate.   Because of its large particle size, it is not absorbed through the lungs but through the skin.  (In contrast, sarin has the consistency of water and is designed for respiratory absorption.[2])  VX’s LD50 for humans – the dose that has a 50% chance of killing an exposed person – is ten milligrams via skin exposure for a 154-pound man.[3]

 

THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE

The test took place at Dugway Proving Ground, in Tooele County, Utah.  In the western part of the county was the Great Salt Lake Desert, and in the east there were three small mountain ranges, Cedar, Stansbury-Onaqui, and Oquirrh.  Dugway Proving Ground was at the edge of the desert, near the southern end of the Cedar Mountains and the town of Dugway, population at the time, 3,000.[4] The Cedar Mountains had a maximum height of about 2700 feet but rose about 1000-1200 feet in the area between DPG and the nearest herds of sheep, which were 27 miles away as the crow flies.[5]  Between the Cedar Mountains and the Stansbury-Onaqui Mountains was Skull Valley, and over the Stansbury-Onaqui Mountains was Rush Valley, 45 miles away from the target.[6]

It was a routine test.  According to CW expert Albert J. Mauroni, DPG had conducted 170 nerve agent spray trials since 1953, in addition to hundreds of mustard gas and biological agent spray trials. Extensive testing with stimulants was done before any testing with a real nerve agent, and even then the tanks contained, in addition to the nerve agent, a chemical dye as a marker.[7]

At 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 13, two tanks of VX, which was mixed with a red dye to make it easier to see, were loaded into an Air Force jet, an F-4.  The TMU-28B tanks contained 320 gallons of agent.  As had occurred more than a hundred times before, VX would be sprayed over a target area to test a spraying system.  The pilot climbed to 150 feet, made two practice runs over the target, thenopened the nozzles on the high-pressure dispensers in order to spray the target.  A thin misty red liquid spray, containing at least 80 percent of the agent, rained down immediately on the target.[8]

The pilot then pulled up, to about 1500 feet, to jettison the tanks.  A small amount of agent continued to dribble out of one of the tanks after the target was sprayed, during the five seconds before the tanks were ejected.[9]

As John C. Waugh reported in The Christian Science Monitor, “A weak weather front was moving in on the desert.  Scattered clouds were scuddling [sic] across toward the northeast.  A 20-mile-an-hour breeze was whipping out of the southwest.  Nothing unusual.”[10]

It began to rain.

Other activities involving CW agents were conducted that day at DPG, including an artillery demonstration involving sarin (GB) that was conducted some 15-35 miles away from Skull Valley and the disposal of 160 gallons of VX in an open burning pit about 27 miles away from Skull Valley.[11]  But only the aerial spray test was later associated with what happened next.

The next day, Environment magazine later reported, “shepherds from the Hatch Ranch in Skull Valley noticed that some of the sheep near White Rock, on the eastern slope of the Cedar Mountains, were acting in a most peculiar fashion – dazed, staggering, jerking their necks spasmodically to the side, and finally dropping to the ground, apparently exhausted and unable to rise.  During the day there were snow flurries, and the sheep continued to graze and lick the snow.  More and more of them in two separate flocks showed the strange symptoms and by night some had died. . . . Several days later, sheep grazing farther from the test site began to sicken and die.  A week after the test at Dugway a flock on the west side of the Onaqui Mountains began to show the now-familiar, but still puzzling, symptoms.”[12]

Philip M. Boffey in Science wrote that the sheep “acted dazed, walked in an uncoordinated manner with their heads tilted off to one side, urinated frequently, and, when frightened or pushed, often sank to the ground and lay there, kicking the air, unable to get up.”[13]

The Christian Science Monitor reported: “The next day [after the test] was March 14.  Up in the rolling stone-and-sage-covered hills of White Rock on the edge of Skull Valley – 27 miles northeast of Granite Peak – sheep grazing in the snow suddenly began to lose balance and collapse.

“In the hours and days that followed more than 6,000 sheep died.”[14]

The New York Times reported that the sheep began collapsing and dying two days after the test, not the next day.[15]

The nearest affected sheep were in Skull Valley, 27 miles away from the test sire and over the mountains, while the farthest affected sheep were in Rush Valley 45 miles from the test site, over two mountain ranges but near a pass through the second range.

On the second day after the test, ranchers called veterinarians for help.  “The veterinarians had never observed symptoms like this before and were unable to diagnose the illness or to help the sick animals,” according to Environment magazine.[16]

By Sunday, March 17, four days after the test, Philip Boffey reported in Science, “the principal rancher involved and his veterinarian concluded they were up against something they couldn’t handle and called for help from local universities.”[17]

“Toole County Agent Ernest O. Biggs said more than 3,000 head had been counted dead about mid-Monday,” the Deseret News noted.  “Cy Jensen, district manager for the BLM [Bureau of Land Management], sad he had heard more than 5,000 sheep were dead by this morning [Tuesday].

“Scientists report a similar epidemic in Colorado about two years ago.  Those deaths were traced to a toxic chemical from crops raised with chemical fertilizer.

“However, officials said they saw no traces of such poison in the Skull Valley sheep deaths.”[18]

The New York Times reported: “A toxicologist from the National Animal Disease Center at Ames, Iowa, arrived in Utah today [March 20, a week after the test] to help other scientists seeking to find what is killing thousands of sheep in western Utah’s semidesert Skull Valley.

“Dr. Hillman Nelson arrived in Salt Lake City and was flown to the area some 50 miles to the west, where observers say the scene is like ‘a sea of dead animals.’

“Officials said the deaths were apparently caused by some kind of poison affecting the animals’ nervous system.

“The area is 20 to 30 miles from the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground, where biological and chemical warfare tests are conducted.  But an Army spokesman said the installation ‘definitely is not responsible.’

“Some 3,000 sheep have reportedly died since last Thursday, all on the Hatch Land and Livestock Company rangeland, controlled by the Anschutz Corporation of Denver.”[19]

On Thursday, March 21, eight days after the test, the office of Senator Frank Moss (D-Utah) released a document, marked “For Official Use Only,” that the senator had been given by the Army.  It described the CW-related activities at Dugway on March 13 –that “non-persistent” gas was fired in 155 millimeter shells, 160 gallons of “nerve agent” was disposed of in a pit, and 320 gallons of a “persistent gas” was spread from an airplane.  According to Albert J. Mauroni, “Suspicion immediately fell upon the Army’s tests.  Newspapers began running stories that the open-air spray trials were now the number one suspect in the sheep deaths.”[20]

Interestingly, Seymour Hersh later suggested that the release of the document was accidental.  “How long the army would have gone without telling the ranchers of the nerve gas tests is problematical; when the facts became known, it was by accident.  On Thursday, March 21, the Pentagon responded to a request for more information from Senator Frank E. Moss, Utah Democrat, by sending a fact sheet to his office marked ‘For Official Use Only,’ an informal security classification intended to prevent public release.  A young press aide in Moss’s office promptly made the fact sheep public; the Army’s attempt hours later to retrieve the document was too late.”[21]  Hersh did not explain how he could possibly have known whether the release was an “accident” or a deliberate leak.

In the same article, Hersh noted that the Army cancelled all open-air spray tests at Dugway and “spent the next three weeks issuing denials that nerve gas from Dugway had anything to do with the death of the sheep – even in the face of medical reports directly linking them to organic phosphate compounds (nerve gas is one such).”  The non sequitur is glaring: Even if the sheep died from exposure to organophosphates, nerve gas (or, specifically, VX) “is one such” and not the only such compound – for example, common pesticides of the day were also organophosphates — and Dugway testing was not the only possible source of nerve gas.[22]

The New York Times reported:

The sheep were in two bands, tended by Basque herdsmen, employed by the Hatch Land and Livestock Company.  The herdsmen, their dogs and horses have not become ill.  The horses were fed alfalfa and did not graze.

The sheep were almost all ewes 40 days from lambing and 10 days from being sheared of the 12 to 15 pounds of wool that each carries at winter’s end. . . .

Several hundred sheep from one band were locate by helicopter today [March 21, eight days after the test] clustered around a pinnacle of rock jutting from a mountain meadow to the west of SkullValley.

Most of them were dead, their carcasses scattered among snow patches and beneath the low-growing cedar trees.  Others scratched at the ground to try to get to get up as the dried tumbleweed blown by the wash from the blades frightened them.  Their hooves had dug trenches in earlier futile efforts.”[23]

 

THE INVESTIGATION BECOMES POLITICAL

According to Albert J. Mauroni, “an Army intelligence officer, a captain assigned to Dugway, initiated his own investigation.  He discovered that Deseret Livestock Company ranchers had hired two spray planes to spray insecticide over lands where alfalfa was grown, about two to five miles north of the White Rocks sheep.  He had obtained one pilot’s name and the aircraft number and located two empty spray tanks.  Eyewitnesses in the area were not sure whether the spraying had been conducted on March 13, 14, or 15, but it was in the right time frame.”[24]  But when Dugway’s commander, Colonel James Watts, mentioned the investigation to Governor Calvin L. Rampton (D), the governor became infuriated.

According to C. Grant Ash, Rampton said, in effect, “You people at Dugway killed those sheep and I will not stand by and let you involve the innocent ranchers and citizens of Utah in your mess.  I want your investigator to stop researching and probing immediately!”[25]

Rampton made calls to officials in Washington, and the intelligence officer was transferred. [26]

(Five days after Rampton confronted Watts, on March 26, officials from Utah’s Division of Health would discover empty cans of the pesticide heptachlor, leading to an admission from Deseret Land Company ranchers that they had sprayed their alfalfa for weevils, supposedly on March 15.  According to Mauroni, the spray tanks had been cleaned with a caustic solution and “An unopened half-gallon can of heptachlor was shown to investigators, which made them suspicious: Why would someone use half-gallon containers to fill a hundred-gallon spray tank?[27]   Mauroni also noted that a large number of sheep had died in Colorado two years earlier, with read tears and red urine, and a seed grain preservative was the suspected cause.[28])

Later on the day of the Rampton-Watts confrontation, March 21, “ten sheep were reported sick at the neighboring Skull Valley Indian Reservation and a dozen or more sheep ill at the Russell Herd in RushValley, nearly 80 miles from the test site.  Was the epidemic spreading?  Lab results were still inconclusive in identifying a culprit.”[29]

By the next day, Friday, March 22, nine days after the test, the issue had become politicized, with Utah’s governor, a lawyer, weighing in on the issue of what killed the sheep.  “In my opinion,” said Rampton, it was the Army test of “a toxic substance,” “It is my hypothesis that some airborne substance caught in a breeze was carried across from the proving ground and either inhaled or ingested by the sheep.”  He said his judgment on the matter was “certainly subject to question,” and “There are many blanks” in the evidence and “other possible hypotheses.”   For one thing, he said, the Army has failed to find nerve gas traces or chemical effects so far in the dead sheep.”  Asked who would pay for the loss of the sheep, Rampton said, “I am sure that the Federal Government will pay.”[30]

By the time of Rampton’s comments, there was something of a mob scene at Skull Valley as, in the words of Philip M. Boffey and D.S. Greenberg of Science magazine, “various other scientists came rushing to this arid valley about 60 miles southwest of Salt Lake City to assist in the investigation.”[31]    According to Boffey, those investigating the incident included, within less than two weeks, “specialists” fromDugway, the University of Utah, Utah State University at Logan, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and various other state and federal agencies, plus “experts” from the Army’s Edgewood (Maryland) Arsenal, the Public Health Service’s National Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta, the Agriculture Department’s National Animal Disease Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, and a military contractor.  “At this point, virtually no one has a complete picture of all the scientific tests that have been run and are being run,” Boffey noted.[32]

They needn’t have bothered with the stepped-up investigation: The day after Governor Rampton announced his opinion, even as the new investigators were arriving, the head of the Rampton-appointed investigating team declared that “We are as positive as medical science can be the army tests caused the deaths.  We’re very lucky no people were killed.  As far as we’re concerned, the cases are closed.’ The head investigator, Dr. D.A. Osguthorpe said that “sufficient tests” had been completed to hold the Army responsible.

Osguthorpe said, “We have narrowed the cause of death to an organic phosphate compound – the kind that is a component of nerve gas.  Since the Army has admitted conducting nerve gas tests the day before the sheep began dying, that would seem to clear the matter up.”

His comments were contradicted by an Army spokesman who said that “no definite cause of death” had been established and that the set of symptoms found in the dying animals “simply doesn’t match those in animals affected by toxic nerve gases.”[33]  In fact, according to Mauroni, test sheep deliberately exposed to VX showed labored breathing, convulsions, and excessive salivation – symptoms not seen in theSkull Valley sheep – while the Skull Valley sheep showed drooping heads and twisted necks and spines, symptoms not seen in the test sheep.  In addition, the test sheep either died quickly or recovered completely, while some Skull Valley sheep lingered for weeks and did not respond to atropine, the treatment for VX exposure.[34]

During the March 23-24 weekend’s helicopter surveillance runs to document living and ambulatory sheep in the area, a major from Dugway encountered a rancher who, according to Mauroni, “was engaged with a crew of men killing sheep.  Many were still alive, and about a third were healthy enough to run as the helicopter swooped over them.  For the purposes of the brief, they estimated there were about 15,000 sheep in the immediate affected area, and between 5,000 and 7,000 had taken ill.”[35]

 

THE ARMY CONCEDES

By Monday, March 25, 12 days after the test, United Press International reported:

The Army conceded for the first time . . .  that its nerve gas possibly might have killed some 6000 Utah sheep, but said that no one could determine for sure what caused the mysterious deaths.

Brig. Gen. William W. Stone of the Army Materiel Command said there was increasing evidence that a chemical such as used in nerve gas killed the sheep, but that no traces of it could be found in the grazing area, near the Army’s Dugway proving grounds in western Utah.

“We fully recognize, with this occurring right on our doorstep and probably involving a chemical similar to materials that we have been testing, that we are highly suspect,” Stone told members of Congress from Utah.

The same chemical, Stone said, was found in insecticides, but there was no evidence that insecticides had been used in the area.

While there was increasing evidence that an anticholinesterase chemical such as is used by the Army was involved, Stone said, there was no evidence “to tell us the actual chemical compound or to help us pinpoint the source and how it got to the sheep and not to humans.”[36]

Interestingly, Stone said that there was no evidence of insecticide use in the area, even though the intelligence officer had found evidence of such use.   As noted above, on March 26, the day after Stone’s comment, ranchers would admit to aerial spraying of insecticide.

News stories continued to indicate that evidence was mounting against the Army.  Victor Cohn wrote in The Washington Post about evidence that, he wrongly suggested, supported the Dugway-did-it theory.  The new “facts that seem to point to nerve gas as the probable killer” were disclosed by “[Senator] Moss and [Brig. Gen.] Stone, facing reporters,” Cohn wrote, with no hint that the sheep could have been exposed to nerve gas from a source other than the Army test.  He reported that “Five healthy sheep, hauled to Skull Valley March 19, showed similar sickness symptoms within six or seven days” and “Seventy more range sheep just beyond Skull Valley have shown ‘very light symptoms’ in the past few days.  ‘It means there’s something still there in the forage, the plants the sheep eat,’ Stone said.”[37] That was strange, because any VX that reached Skull Valley would have been in extremely small particles – the large, heavy particles having precipitated immediately – and even a persistent agent such as VX would have mostly disappeared by the time the new sheep arrived, much less when they began to get sick (it was six days until they arrived, plus up to six or seven days for them to exhibit symptoms).  And the fact that sheep were getting “very light symptoms” 17 to 19 days after the test was equally peculiar.

Cohn also wrote that “All these sheep – the 6400, the Dugway test sheep and the newly ill – show depressed levels of the enzyme cholinesterase in their blood.  This has been called ‘the most specific test’ of nerve gas action” – brushing aside the fact a number of substances, including some common pesticides, lower the level of cholinesterase.

 

NOT WHAT HAPPENED, BUT HOW IT HAPPENED

The emphasis in news stories began to shift, from the question of what happened to the sheep to the question of when the Army would admit that it was at fault.  Boffey, in Science, wrote, “Utah sheep ranchers suspect the Army will try to ‘cover up’ if it discovers that nerve agents did indeed kill the sheep, but Army officials insist they are eager to have outside scientists participate in the investigating and help solve the mystery.  The Army says it has granted clearance and access to all relevant information to at least two Utah state officials.  Civilian scientists have been allowed to work closely with their counterparts at Dugway on the investigation.”[38]  A month later, Boffey wrote that “the Army was not quite prepared to accept full responsibility for the deaths of the sheep.”[39]

Muckraking journalists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson entered the fray by raising the question: If such a test can kill thousands of sheep, how can we know humans are safe?  “The incident of the 6000 dead sheep in western Utah has raised the ominous possibility that people, too, may be in danger from chemical and germ warfare experiments.

“This column has learned, for example, that the veterinarians who examined the dead sheep have complained of strange symptoms themselves.  The Basque sheepherder who has been tending the ill-fated flock also suffered from nausea, headaches, dissiness [sic] and diarrhea.

The Dugway incident “has caused an urgent reappraisal of the safeguards at other chemical and biological warfare centers.  For it is known hat the Army is experimenting with paralyzing, odorless gases and deadly mutant microbes in more populated places than the sagebrush country of western Utah.” Pearson and Anderson identified the experimental facilities as including the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, the Pine Bluff Arsenal, “Fort Dietrich [sic]”, Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, “Elgin [sic] Air Force Base” in Florida, and a civilian lab in Newport, Indiana.  “In addition, 50 research contracts have been granted to various universities.”

“There are no known antidotes for some of the gases and germs that have been developed.  At the Pine Bluff Laboratories, for example, bacterial strains have been developed that could cause a national disaster. . . . The question remains whether the next seepage could leave dead people instead of sheep.”

Pearson and Anderson reported: “In the case of the sheep, the Agriculture Department sent two veterinarians from the Utah state Agricultural College, Dr. Kent van Kampen and Dr. Lynn James, to determine the cause of the mysterious deaths.  They performed several autopsies which indicated the sheep had died from disorders of the central nervous system.

“Not long afterward, both veterinarians came down with the same symptoms that had afflicted the sheepherder.  This startling development was immediately hushed up by the Federal officials in charge of the investigation.  Dr. E.E. Solomon, the Agriculture Department’s director of animal health, spoke on the phone to his chief veterinarian in Utah, Dr. Jordan Rasmussen, who instructed Drs. Van Kampen and James to keep their symptoms to themselves.”

“Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. William W. Stone of the Army Materiel Command acknowledged to the Utah Congressional delegation that the death of the sheep ‘right on our doorstep and probably involving a chemical similar to materials we have been testing . . . (makes us) highly suspect.”[40]

Thus, the story of the Dugway sheep began to expand.  If the Army was incorrect or lying about the nerve gas test’s effect on sheep, maybe it was wrong about the effect on humans.   (See the end of this report for a recent follow-up involving a man named Ray Peck.)

Less than 50 people, including Basque sheepherders and about 30 American Indians, lived in the Skull Valley area.[41]  However, the town of Dugway, population 3000, was in the likely path of the agent.[42]  In fact, no humans showed cholinesterase levels outside the norm or other signs of exposure to nerve agent.[43]

In response to reports such as those in the Pearson/Anderson column, and specifically to a warning by a local doctor, the Pentagon announced that Army and the U.S. Public Health Service examinations “have revealed no effect on any of the people tested in the Skull Valley area of Utah,” that Army doctors “thoroughly tested and examined” DPG employees living in Skull Valley “to determine if they had in any way been affected by whatever killed the sheep” while the PHS tested other residents of the area.”

The local doctor was Dr. Kelly Gubler, chief of staff at Tooele Valley Hospital near Skull Valley, who wrote in Medical World News that continued nerve gas testing at Dugway was extremely dangerous: “We should bear in mind that with a slight amount of misdirected contaminant, there could be a massive human disaster.”[44]

The “massive human disaster” quote was picked up by both AP and UPI and appeared in hundreds of newspapers, including in The New York Times on April 13 and 14.[45]

The Chicago Tribune reported that Gubler said doctors had treated humans “with infection and nervous disorders which ‘made me wonder about Dugway.’”[46]

 

THE CONCLUSION IS FINAL

On April 12, 30 days after the test, the Public Health Service released a report suggesting that the sheep had been exposed to large amounts of a substance “identical” to VX that had been supplied to the National Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta on April 4.  A spokesman said that “tests have isolated a compound in snow, water, sheep blood, sheep liver tissue, and in grass taken from sheep’s stomachs which is identical to that agent applied by the army for comparative tests.”  The NCDC samples had been taken over the weekend of March 23-24, ten or eleven days after the VX test.  NCDC’s first attempts to find a match for VX in the tissue and environmental samples had been inconclusive, and it took NCDC eight days to get a positive result.  Earlier, on March 29, a release from Senator Moss’s office had quoted Stone saying that none of the nerve agent had been detected in the soil, water, or forage of the area in which the sheep died.[47]  Thus, strangely, it appears that the longer an environmental test was done after the incident, the more likely it was to get a positive result.

On May 9, the Federation of American Scientists cited “the inadvertent destruction of 6400 sheep near the Dugway Proving Ground” as it called for an end to U.S. production and development of “biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction.”

“It is foolish for a rich nation with the strongest deterrent on earth to encourage other nations to develop cheap weapons that might neutralize our power or destroy our people,” the FAS claimed in a statement released to the press.  The statement also asserted: “Neither our acts nor our statements should increase the plausibility of chemical and biological warfare.  Inevitable reports of the development of these weapons will quietly incite, encourage and justify actions by others not now engaged in such development.

FAS said it was unlikely the U.S. would resort to nerve gas, “yet such weapons are being developed and tested, as was recently shown” by the deaths of the sheep.

“Nor will the United States find it necessary to attack the crops of entire nations with rice blast fungus,” but researchers at Fort Detrick “receive medals for developing it.”

At the time, FAS claimed about 2,500 members.[48]

By June, the idea that the sheep were killed by the Dugway test of VX had passed into legend, and the great distance from the testing site to the dead sheep was seen not as evidence that something else killed the sheep, but as evidence of the very great danger of CBW testing. The Dugway sheep had become the late ’60s and early ’70s’ counterpart to Frankenstein’s Monster; the very mention served as a warning about the danger of technology gone amok, of Things Mankind Was Not Meant To Know.   And the fact that the U.S. government took so long to admit what it had (supposedly) done was seen as evidence that the government couldn’t be trusted with such dangerous weapons.

In a June 19, 1968 Wall Street Journal review of Seymour Hersh’s book on CBW, Frederick Taylor noted the comment of Brigadier General J.H. Rothschild, former director of U.S. chemical warfare research, on psychochemicals: “Some military leaders feel that we should not consider using these materials because we do not know exactly what will happen and no clearcut results can be predicted.  But imagine where science would be today if the reaction to trying anything new had been, ‘Let’s not try it until we know what the results will be.’”

Taylor commented, “Gen. Rothschild’s spirit of adventure, which still seems to prevail in the Chemical Corps, may not be appreciated by those Utah farmers who in March had 6,400 sheep killed as the result of a nerve gas test at Dugway Proving Ground, 27 miles from where the nearest sheep were grazing.  The Army still is trying to figure out what happened.”[49]

 

Ranchers claimed a loss of 6,249 sheep – 4,372 that were killed directly by the nerve gas and 1,877 that were disabled and had to be destroyed.  The meat and pelts, presumed to be contaminated, could not be sold.  A claim of $376,685 was sent to the Secretary of the Army, and Senator Wallace F. Bennett (R), facing reelection, said he would do whatever he could to get the money included in legislation during that session of Congress.[50]

On July 10, Bennett announced that the Army claims service had approved, and forwarded to the Secretary of the Army for confirmation, a claim of $376,685 (roughly $2.2 million in today’s dollars) by theAnschutz Land and Livestock Company.[51]  On August 20, Secretary Stanley Resor authorized payment of $5,000 and recommended that Congress approve the remainder, a formality.  The Army stated that approval of the claim “doesn’t constitute a finding that the Army was negligent,” but that the compensation was “proper in this case.”[52]  The Army paid the claim in the hope of limiting the public relations damage – which backfired, later, when Representative Henry Reuss (D-Wisconsin), a critic of the CBW program, suggested that the inflated compensation may have been hush money.

Mauroni explained: “The Army had decided to admit that Dugway Proving Ground tests had probably killed the sheep, and that the government would compensate the ranchers for their losses.  Whether there was adequate evidence supporting the claim was immaterial.  The instructions were to complete the investigation, as quickly as possible, admit involvement, and return to a normal testing routine as rapidly as circumstances would allow.”[53]

According to C. Grant Ash, scientific director of Deseret Test Center, “the commanding Army generals made a policy decision and gave new instruction to Brig. Gen. William W. Stone.  The policy was that ‘the Army will admit that the Proving Grounds probably killed the sheep and will pay the ranchers for their losses.’  The instructions were to complete the investigation, as soon as possible, admit our involvement, and get back to a normal routine as rapidly as circumstances will permit. . . . [T]he decisions were arbitrary, not based on science, but were political and self interest motivated.  No thought was given to possible covert or sabotage activities or a rancher accident.”[54]

According to Mauroni, “As the Deseret Test Center personnel saw it, much of the investigation was political, not scientific.  The desire to identify what had gone wrong was abandoned in favor of public demands, local political gain, and simple greed, combined with poor judgment on the part of the Army leadership.  Although the Army had accepted the blame, there had been no conclusive evidence that it was nerve gas that killed these sheep, and more than enough evidence that it was a rush to judgment.”[55]

 

HERSH SUMS IT UP

On August 25, The New York Times published an article by Seymour Hersh based on his new book.  A large photograph accompanying the article showed dead sheep with the caption, “Sheep killed in a nerve-gas test that went awry near an Army C.B.W. research center in Utah last March.”

The Hersh article began:

The Dugway Proving Grounds, main weapons-testing center for America’s chemical and biological warfare (C.B.W.) research program, is a well-isolated military base; most of its one million acres are spread across the Great Salt Lake Desert in western Utah.  The base’s eastern edge – and the only access road to it – is about 80 mountainous miles west of Salt Lake City.  In between are some small mountain ranges and sparsely inhabited valleys, where ranchers control vast acreage and thousands of sheep graze.

Until this spring, most Americans had never heard of the proving grounds, although Dugway has been testing chemical and biological weapons since World War II.  The base’s obscurity ended in March.

At 5:30 P.M. on Wednesday, March 13, an Air Force jet flew swiftly over a barren target zone and sprayed 320 gallons of a highly persistent, lethal nerve agent known as VX during a test of two new high-pressure dispensers for the gas.  The test site was about 30 miles west of Skull Valley and about 45 miles west of Rush Valley, two large sheep-grazing areas.  The site was also about 35 miles south of U.S. 40, one of the nation’s most heavily traveled highways and a main link between the Midwest and California.

The winds were blowing from the west that day, with gusts reaching 35 miles an hour.  Testing in strong winds was nothing new to the Army researchers; since the early nineteen-fifties millions of dollars had been spent on meteorological equipment and gauges at Dugway, and the scientists had long been able to predict accurately the dispersal of the killer gases – or so they thought.

On Thursday the sheep began to die in Skull and Rush Valleys.  By Sunday more than 6,000 sheep were dead, and the top command in Dugway was informed of the outbreak by the ranchers. Veterinarians began inoculating thousands of sheep that day, but found that none of several vaccines had any effect.

A week after the secret test flight, the Salt Lake City newspapers published dispatches telling of the mysterious sheep deaths and linking them to “some kind of poison.”  A spokesman for Dugway told the newspapers that tests on the base “definitely are not responsible” for the deaths.  “Since we first found out about it,’” the official said, “we checked and found we hadn’t been running any tests that would cause this.”

How long the army would have gone without telling the ranchers of the nerve gas tests is problematical; when the facts became known, it was by accident.  On Thursday, March 21, the Pentagon responded to a request for more information from Senator Frank E. Moss, Utah Democrat, by sending a fact sheet to his office marked “For Official Use Only,” an informal security classification intended to prevent public release.  A young press aide in Moss’s office promptly made the fact sheep public; the Army’s attempt hours later to retrieve the document was too late. [56]

Hersh did not explain how he could possibly have known whether the release was an “accident” or a deliberate leak.

Hersh noted that the Army cancelled all open-air spray tests at Dugway and “spent the next three weeks issuing denials that nerve gas from Dugway had anything to do with the death of the sheep – even in the face of medical reports directly linking them to organic phosphate compounds (nerve gas is one such).”  The non sequitur is glaring: Even if the sheep died from exposure to such compounds, nerve gas (or, specifically, VX) “is one such” and not the only such compound, and Dugway testing was not the only possible source of nerve gas.

“The military’s performance in the Dugway affair,” Hersh wrote, “was consistent with its long-standing avoidance of public discussion of the controversial chemical and biological warfare program.”[57]

 

 

THE IMPACT OF THE NEWS MEDIA

The news media played a critical role in the Dugway incident – one of creating confusion over what really happened and of promoting the Dugway-did-it theory to the exclusion of other theories.

To this day, it is widely reported that a malfunction occurred during the Dugway test, but there is no mention of such a malfunction either in the Stone Report (the official “Report of Investigation Concerning Sheep Deaths in Skull Valley, Utah”)[58] or in the 1993 follow-up memorandum by C. Grant Ash.[59]

A possible source for the idea of a malfunction is a story by Philip M. Boffey in Science, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Boffey wrote:  “The Army has consistently refused to say whether anything went wrong during the test, and Colonel James H. Watts, Dugway’s commanding officer at the time of the incident, has been quoted as denying rumors of a malfunction.  But three sources who participated in the investigation – namely D.A. Osguthorpe, a veterinarian who acted as consultant to the Utah Department of Agriculture, G.D. Carlyle Thompson, director of the Utah State Division of Health, and Surgeon General [William H.] Stewart – all confirmed to Science that there was, indeed, a malfunction.  The malfunction resulted in the agent being released at a much higher altitude than anticipated.”[60]

The rumor of a malfunction may have been based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the spray tanks, which released the agent under pressure, so that, as the test progressed, the pressure eased and the release trailed off.  In any event, the alleged malfunction became an oft-repeated part of the story, explaining why the test was different from the hundreds of similar tests that had been conducted earlier and fitting the prevailing view at the time among opinion elites that the Army was incompetent.

Another source for the “malfunction” idea is an article in the January-February 1969 issue of Environment.  The article credited Boffey with the idea that one or both tanks failed to drop.  The article, “The Wind from Dugway,” was written by the publication’s editor, a chemistry professor, and a professor of geophysics and geophysical engineering.  According to the article, “a story by Philip Boffey in the News and Comment section of the December 21 issue of Science reports that there was a malfunction of the ejection mechanism.  One or both tanks failed to drop. . . The Science account was read to Dr. G.D. Carlyle Thompson, Utah State Director of Health.  He agreed that it was substantially correct.”[61]  In fact, Boffey’s article in Science didn’t mention any tanks that failed to drop.

The Environment article was like most of the articles and books that examined the technical aspects of the story;  it was an effort to explain how the Army test killed the sheep, not whether the test killed the sheep.  Given that key information, such as the amount of VX necessary to kill a sheep, was unavailable to the public at the time, and given the conflicting evidence, it is hard to see how anyone could have concluded with certainty that the sheep were killed as a result of the Army test, yet the media, with almost no exceptions, reached such a definite judgment.

With the exception of one article in The Christian Science Monitor[62], which raised serious questions, one paragraph in Science, and one in The New York Times[63], which expressed skepticism in a passing comment, the national media appear never to have seriously considered the possibility that something else killed the sheep.

The Christian Science Monitor article, by John C. Waugh, asked a number of questions:

The test on March 13 was routine.  The conditions were normal.  The agent rarely before, in a hundred tests, had drifted more than two miles from the test grid – and never beyond the boundaries of the 850,000-acre proving ground.

How could it suddenly have drifted 27 miles that day and killed sheep?  If it did, why wasn’t there evidence in the snow, in the plants, in the soil, or in the sheep themselves?

But if the test didn’t do it, why were 6,400 sheep dead in Skull Valley?  And why just sheep?  Why didn’t cattle, dogs, horses, birds, rabbits, rodents – some of them much more susceptible – die too?  Why weren’t humans hurt?  Some 3,000 persons reside at the proving-ground headquarters between Granite Peak and White Rock.  Nothing else died – just sheep.

And why only the sheep in the narrow swatch that runs from Granite Peak into Skull Valley and over the pass in the Onaqui Mountains?  All the other sheep in the valley grazed on untouched.

And why had no veterinarian in the area ever seen symptoms like these before in dying sheep?”[64]

The article in Science, by Philip M. Boffey and D.S. Greenberg, noted:

Despite the suspicion pointed at Dugway, the case has many puzzling aspects.  Army scientists say the symptoms shown by the afflicted sheep do not resemble symptoms associated with the nerve gases they were testing.  The symptoms shown by the sheep are contraction of the pupils, foaming at the mouth and nose, muscular vibration and muscular convulsions, and rapid, short breathing.  The scientists also assert that, at the time Dugway was testing the nerve agents, the wind was blowing toward the north-northeast rather than east or east-northeast in the direction of the sheep, although the following day some west-to-east squalls apparently did blow first over Dugway and then over the sheep.  Moreover, horses, dogs, cattle, and men who were either with the sheep or close to them were not affected.  One theory – so far completely unsubstantiated – is that a toxic substance may have been carried on snow, a source of water for sheep but apparently not for the other animals or men.”[65]

The prevailing view in the media was so strong that skeptics may have muted themselves.  Even the March 31 Times article – which, with regard to the Dugway-did-it theory, noted simply that “there were puzzling elements, such as the fact that no other animals or men in the area were affected” – seemed to suggest that it didn’t matter: “Whether or not nerve gas was to blame, the incident raised the question whether an accidental release of nerve gas, either in a test or in a shipment, might not some day affect a large number of people rather than sheep.”[66]  Whether the Dugway-did-it theory was true didn’t matter to the headline writer who labeled the story: “The Deadly Peril When Nerve Gas Escapes.”

The locals took a more reasoned approach.  As Boffey reported in Science, “the people of Utah and their community leaders did not seem particularly worried.  The incident was not treated as front-page news by the Salt Lake City papers, and the Tooele Chamber of Commerce actually passed a resolution expressing confidence in Dugway, presumably because Dugway contributes heavily to the local economy.”[67]  A close reading of local news stories also shows a healthy skepticism toward the theory that the Dugway test caused the sheep’s’ deaths.[68]   On March 25, the same day that the Christian Science Monitor highlighted Osguthorpe’s claim that it was “now fairly well established” that the test killed the sheep, a local paper quoted Dugway’s scientific director to the effect that “Three predominant symptoms of nerve gas – irregular, labored breathing; convulsions, and salivation – are not present to any great degree in the Skull Valley sheep.”[69]

Not all the local media acted responsibly.  A week after the sheep began to get sick, Arthur Kent, a local TV anchorman[70] who was an Army reservist, called Brigadier General Appel to alert him that his boss had instructed him to attack the Army chemical weapons tests at Dugway as the cause of the sheep deaths.  According to Deseret Test Center scientific director C. Grant Ash, Kent quoted his boss as saying, “The people want blood from the Army as the cause for the sheep deaths, and we are going to give it to them.”[71]

Still, on the whole, the local media acted more responsibly than the national media.  There are a number of possible explanations for this.   DPG and related facilities were a pillar of the local economy, which may have made local reporters and editors more sympathetic to alternative explanations, and it certainly made local advertisers more sympathetic to explanations that would absolve Dugway of blame.  The local media knew more about DPG and were less likely to see DPG personnel as rubes, militarists, or mad scientists.  DPG personnel, one can assume, read the local papers every day and moved quickly to correct any reporting errors that put them in a bad light.  With regard to the national media, they had far less influence.  Even if DPG personnel read the coverage in the national papers (probably, for most of them, on a much-delayed basis, in a time before the WorldWide Web), complainers seeking corrections in the national media would have been seen as special pleaders and would have been mostly ignored.

 

The national media not only accepted as proven fact the Dugway-did-it theory, but accused the Army of covering up its responsibility.  That made any denial or hint of uncertainty on the part of the Army regarding its responsibility look like a continuation of the cover-up.  The Army was put in the position of a falsely convicted criminal who, in order to get parole, must apologize for a crime he never committed. The Army was required to accept responsibility.

Typical of the slipshod reporting on the Dugway sheep incident was that of Irving S. Bengelsdorf, science reporter for the Los Angeles Times, who reported in October 1968 that –

[C]hemical weapons were given a grim, if accidental, public demonstration last March when 6,400 sheep died near the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah following the release of nerve gases. . . .

The symptoms of nerve gas poisoning, according to the U.S. Army Technical Manual TM-3-215, are “running nose, tightness of chest, dimness of vision, pinpointing of eye pupils, difficulty in breathing, drooling, excessive sweating, nausea, vomiting, cramps, involuntary defecation and urination, twitching, jerking, staggering, headache, confusion, drowsiness, coma, convulsion, cessation of breathing, death.’

These were the symptoms exhibited by the sheep following the release at dusk on March 13, 1968, of two varieties of nerve gases at Dugway Proving Grounds.  The two lethal chemical warfare agents were disseminated from bursting artillery shells and spray-nozzles from low-flying aircraft.

The next day, the sheep grazing in Skull Valley, about 25 miles to the northeast of the proving grounds, were found dead and dying.[72]

Since the list of symptoms provided by Bengelsdorf ranged from “running nose” to “death,” it would be nearly impossible for any person or sheep to be considered sick without exhibiting at least one of those symptoms.  In fact, the sheep’s signs of illness did not match the classical signs of nerve agent poisoning.  And, as far as I have been able to determine, Bengelsdorf is the only reporter, commentator, or investigator who thought that the test of the GB artillery shell played a role in the incident.

Bengelsdorf went on to win DuPont and Westinghouse awards for reporting that included his CBW story, and he was one of the first two journalists inducted into the Pugwash group, an international organization that brought together distinguished scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain to work for “peace.”

 

PROBLEMS WITH THE PREVAILING THEORY

Even as politics forced the Army into a false confession, the news media made no serious attempt to determine what really happened.  Some, accepting the Dugway-did-it theory, blamed the incident simply on freak weather conditions that somehow lifted a cloud of nerve “gas” into the air and deposited it on the sheep.  After all, if it can rain frogs, why not VX?

But in spray tests, VX averaged a particle size of 100 microns and covered an area two to three miles downwind from the spray line.  Some smaller particles in the 50-100 micron range, making up less than six percent of the spray, may have drifted farther, as far as 15 miles.  As CW expert Albert J. Mauroni noted, “To the best of the DPG scientists’ analyses, the downwind spray should never have left the federal grounds.”[73]  A worst-case would have had some two percent of the spray, about six of the 320 gallons, in particles small enough to have drifted more than 15 miles.  By that point, the agent would have been spread over an area of more than 200 square miles, and would had many more miles to go before reaching the sheep.

Deseret Test Center scientific director Dr. C. Grant Ash, in a memorandum written in 1993 or 1994, described the likely effect of weather on the dispersion of the VX.

The meteorological conditions at the time of release were somewhat different from other tests in that the agent was released into a southwest wind about the same time that a weak frontal system was approaching from the north and at release time had reached Wendover, Utah.  As this front [passed] over the Proving Ground area the winds shifted to a northerly direction.

I have conducted tests using smoke in order to observe what happens as two air masses collided with each other.  Somewhat surprising was the result.  We assumed that the colder, denser air would push the lighter air to one side or slip clearly under the lighter air mass.  What happened was that the two air masses seemed to penetrate each other causing a great deal of turbulence which tore the smoke cloud apart and the smoke was rapidly dissipated.  This is likely the scenario of what happened to the agent cloud the 13th of March 1968, and not the mysterious suggested scenario that somehow the agent cloud was held together in one large blob of air that traveled 35 to 80 miles and deposited agent in or on snow where the sheep ate the snow.  The agent would have been spread over at least 2 or 3 hundred square miles.  The dilution factor is so large that neither sheep nor man could be affected.[74]

When Governor Rampton declared his opinion that the VX test killed the sheep, Mauroni wrote, the Governor was suggesting “that somehow an agent cloud had held together for 35 (Skull Valley) to 80 miles (Rush Valley) to deposit agent in that particular area, to the point that its toxicity would have killed the sheep.”[75]

Jonathan Tucker, in War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al Qaeda, said the explanation for the fact that the sheep, and only the sheep, were affected “turned out to be that other mammalian species, such as cattle, horses, and humans, have second form of cholinesterase (called butyrl-cholinesterase [sic: butyrylcholinesterase]) that circulates in their blood serum.  This reservoir of the enzyme absorbs and sequesters some of the nerve agent that enters the body, limiting its harmful effects on the cholinesterase in the nervous system.  Sheep in contrast, have almost no butyrl-cholinesterase in their blood.  Without this natural buffering mechanism, they are exquisitively sensitive to nerve agents and can be injured or killed by less than a milligram of VX, far below the lethal dose in other animals or humans.  The sheep grazing in Skull Valley had been exposed to higher levels of VX than the other animals because they had consumed large amounts of tainted vegetation and snow.”[76]

Still, the reported oral LD50 for sheep is .006 milligrams/kilogram of body weight.[77]  That means the total amount of VX in the test – counting all 320 gallons – amounted to approximately four billion median lethal doses for sheep weighing, say, 50 kilograms each.  If only two gallons of the 320 gallons got outside the test area, that leaves less than 25.5 million lethal doses – spread out, according to Meselson, over roughly 200 square miles (5.6 billion square feet).

Now, imagine that not a single molecule of the agent precipitated on its zigzag route to the area, even as it passed over the mountains, or fell to the side as the particles separated chaotically, or remained airborne once the wind moved past the area inhabited by the sheep.  Imagine that the agent was released in a magically sealed room of 5.6 billion square feet.  In that case, the average sheep would have had to consume every available molecule of the agent in an area of 219 square feet – a seemingly impossible feat.

(And keep in mind that sheep that were brought to the site would have been sickened by what was left of the agent at least 17-19 days later.  Or perhaps longer: Seymour Hersh in 1969 noted a claim by some veterinary scientists “that sheep introduced into the area three weeks after the accident were affected by nerve gas poisoning.”[78]  He presented this claim as proof of, rather than evidence against, the prevailing theory of the case.)

The problem with the atmospheric dispersion aspect of the Dugway-did-it theory is that, the more physical factors one considers, the less plausible the theory appears.

Based on the available records, it is impossible to determine the exact number of sheep killed outright and the number of those that were sickened and “had to be destroyed” (even though survivors of VX usually recover entirely).  But suppose that 3,000 sheep were killed.  That means that 3,000 sheep had to be exposed at the level of LD100, or 6,000 sheep had to be exposed at the level of LD50, or all 15,000 sheep had to be exposed at the level of LD20, or some similar combination of factors had to occur.  The greater the concentration of agent to which each sheep was exposed, the smaller the number of sheep that could have been exposed at that level – and the greater the number of  sheep, the smaller the concentration.  It is plausible, given the uncertainties of atmospheric dispersion, that as a result of the Dugway test 15,000 sheep might have been exposed at the level of LD.01 (the amount sufficient to kill one in ten thousand), resulting in one or two deaths.  It is plausible that a handful of sheep might have been exposed at the median lethal dose, LD50, resulting in a half-handful of sheep deaths.  But it does not seem plausible, given the distance, that 6,000 sheep were exposed to LD50 – even if it a sheep, as Tucker claimed, “can be killed or injured by less than a milligram of VX.”

For all the talk about a single drop of this or that agent killing hundreds of people, the fact is that the aerial distribution of an agent is not very efficient.  On July 13, 1969, at a congressional hearing, Brig.Gen.J.A. Hebbelen noted that, due to the inherent inefficiency of aerial distribution, an unspecified nerve agent with an LD50 of 10 milligrams per person by contact or 3 milligrams by inhalation would take 10-20 pounds (4,535,900-9,071,850 milligrams) to kill 50% of the human population in an area of 10,000 square meters (107,639 square feet).[79]  If one assumes a densely-packed crowd (2.5 square feet per person), that’s 105 to 211 milligrams of agent per person exposed at LD50, not the 3-10 milligrams that would be required in theory.  If one assumes a loosely packed crowd, it’s 420 to 844 milligrams per person.   And that’s the effect in a tightly defined area.

In a real-world example, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo used three liters of sarin to kill seven people in a 1994 open-air attack and 24 liters (at 25% purity) to kill 12 people in a 1995 subway attack.[80]

My examination of the atmospheric dispersion aspect of the Dugway-did-it theory is admittedly a simplistic one.  As far as I can determine, no one has created a sophisticated atmospheric dispersion model of this case – that’s a task I will leave to some other analyst – and until such a model is created, any examination is bound to be simplistic.

But problems regarding agent quantity and atmospheric dispersion are not the only problems with the Dugway-did-it theory.  Another problem is that the sheep did not display the known signs of VX poisoning, and that sheep deliberately exposed to VX did not show the signs exhibited in the Skull Valley sheep.

 

THEORIES

So what killed the sheep?  Here are some possibilities:

• The sheep died from exposure to pesticide.  Albert Mauroni, in his book America’s Struggle with Chemical-Biological Warfare,  hypothesized that ranchers planned to spray crops a few miles from the sheep, using cheap pesticides that are effective but of indeterminate purity and quality.  Because they were spraying impermissibly close to the sheep, they were spraying without permits.  An accident occurred.  The sheep, which were uninsured, got exposed.  Veterinary care didn’t help.  The ranchers knew of the Dugway testing, so they hauled a few sheep to other locations, mixing them in with unexposed sheep, to shift attention away from themselves and toward the testing.

• The sheep were killed as a result of CBW activity at Dugway, but not as a result of one of the three CW-related activities to which the Army admitted.  Perhaps some other kind of testing was being done; perhaps CW-related activity was occurring outside the perimeters of DPG; perhaps chemical agents were being transported by air, and an accident occurred near the sheep.  But if there was a cover-up, why would the Army make admissions regarding the other activities?  Why wouldn’t the Army have simply clamped a lid on the entire matter and paid the ranchers a premium for their silence?  The known facts about the Dugway sheep incident strongly suggest that Army officials believed they were probably innocent.

• The sheep kill was sabotage – part of a clandestine effort to bring about restrictions on testing at Dugway or to expose and discredit the entire U.S. CBW program.  “Two Russian saboteurs with Russian agent and equipped with nothing more than what they could acquire on the local American market could pull off the entire sheep episode,” Ash, scientific director of Deseret Test Center, wrote 25 years after the incident.[81]

 

AFTERMATH OF THE DUGWAY INCIDENT

If there was a plan to hurt the U.S. CBW program, it worked.

As Joseph D. Douglass Jr. wrote:  The sheep became a cause célèbre used against the U.S. military.  In an effort to put an end to the unfavorable publicity, the Army was directed to pay off the sheep farmers, but this did even more damage because of the Army’s implicit acknowledgement of guilt in the process.  In retrospect, it now appears nearly impossible for the deaths to have been caused by nerve agent testing.  Years after the testing was stopped, several additional episodes occurred in which large numbers of sheep died, and state veterinarians concluded that the deaths were due to the ingestion of a noxious weed, common to the area.  None of the reporters or newspapers who reported on the Dugway sheep ‘accident’ paid any attention to the follow-on ‘accidents.’”[82]  (One such episode is discussed in the “Note on Dr. Osguthorpe” near the end of this report.)

There had been some opposition to the U.S. CBW program for years, but the Dugway incident came just as “peace” (anti-U.S. military) organizations and publications were focusing on the issue, spurred by the U.S. use of nonlethal chemicals in the Vietnam War, which they characterized as chemical warfare.

Less than three weeks before the sheep’s’ deaths, London’s Bernal Peace Library, created to honor the Marxist scientist-activist J.D. Bernal, hosted its first conference, the Conference on Chemical and Biological Warfare, with the participation of some U.S. scientists who were considered CBW experts.  (At least three of them would later brief the President’s Science Advisory Committee subcommittee considering CBW policy under President Nixon.)  When the sheep died, one of the Bernal conference participants, Robin Clarke, editor of Science Journal, had just published his book We All Fall Down: the Prospect of Chemical and Biological Warfare, which, The New York Times would declare later, “helped incite international protest” over CBW.[83]   Seymour Hersh was finishing his exposé of the U.S. CBW program; it would be published less than three months after the sheep’s’ deaths, followed in August by Hersh’s adaptation of the book into a New York Times article incorporating information about the sheep. [84] Also in August, a group of scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder issued a statement warning of the danger to Denver from the storage of chemical weapons at Rocky Mountain Arsenal.  In September, a letter to the editor of New York Times noted the  scientists’ statement and pointed out that the weapons were stored less than 10 miles from downtown Denver, while “Sheep in the Dugway Proving Ground incident were killed as far as 100 miles away from the test site.”[85]

Before the sheep’s’ deaths, anti-CBW protests had forced the American Society of Microbiology to poll its members on whether the society should continue advising Fort Detrick, and a few weeks after the sheep’s’ deaths, ASM ended its advisory role.[86]   At the University of Pennsylvania, two years of student protests would lead, a few weeks after the sheep’s’ deaths, to cancellation of secret CBW research projects worth an annual $845,000 (almost $5 million in today’s dollars).[87]

The Dugway sheep incident eventually galvanized elite opinion against the testing of chemical and biological weapons – “eventually,” because it took many months for the full effect.  CBS News, on the newsmagazine “60 Minutes,” aired reports on the U.S. CBW program by Mike Wallace on October 8 and October 22, 1968 – reports that drew the sharp criticism of Seymour Hersh for the decision by the network to cooperate with the U.S. military in their reporting.[88]  Perhaps because, as Hersh charged, the stories were toned down in order to facilitate government cooperation, they did not attract the attention that was received by an NBC story the following February.

 

THE INCIDENT BECOMES PART OF THE DEBATE AND PART OF THE CULTURE

The Dugway incident gained traction as a political issue only after NBC News aired its report on the U.S. CBW program, focusing on Dugway and the dead sheep.  The report aired on the newsmagazine “First Tuesday,” February 4, 1969, and it was seen by a congressman, Richard “Max” McCarthy, who would become the nemesis of the CBW program, holding hearings, speaking at hearings conducted by other congressmen, and serving as the inspiration for still more hearings.

With the NBC report, the sheep kill had finally attracted the attention of politicians and commentators.  The incident led to fierce attacks on the U.S. CBW program by editorialists and other commentators, to a flood of news articles that were thinly disguised anti-CBW commentaries, and to congressional hearings that revealed information about the program that was highly classified or should have been.  Bess Myerson, a Miss America and game show panelist turned politician, used the incident in speeches, one of which was later filmed as “You Don’t Have to Buy War, Mrs. Smith” (1970).[89]

The incident entered the popular culture, lending an air of credibility to Michael Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain (which was written before the incident) and the movie adaptation (which was produced after the incident), and serving as the inspiration for countless works of fiction, including Stephen King’s breakthrough novel The Stand, the George C. Scott/Martin Sheen movie “Rage” (in which the government covers up a nerve gas accident that kills a man’s teenage son), and episodes of one of television’s biggest hits, “Hawaii Five-O,” including “Three Dead Cows at Makapuu,” parts one and two.[90]

By March 1969, the Dugway sheep incident was serving as shorthand for the dangers of CBW research.  In The New York Times, Jane E. Brody wrote: “On March 13, 1969, the wind shifted in a Utah valley and more than 6,000 sheep died.  The ill wind carried tiny particles of a lethal nerve gas, known as VX, being tested by the Army at nearby Dugway Proving Grounds.  Had the wind shift been to the north instead of the east, the victims might have been people – motorists who had stopped for a stretch or a snooze along U.S. 40, a main highway between the Midwest and the West Coast.”[91]

Later that month, in a “Voice of Youth” op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, high school student John Pecotte wrote: “The very thought of waging a chemical or biological war triggers a morbid sense of horror in the minds of men.  The lethal chemical weapon, nerve gas, got its major publicity when more than 6,000 sheep were killed, because 320 gallons of the sprayed gas drifted 30 to 45 miles outside the designated testing ground.”  Note the exaggerated quantity.[92]

In April, The Wall Street Journal noted in an editorial: “Even more than with advanced nuclear weapons, it’s likely the effectiveness of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction must remain in the realm of the hypothetical.  For the testing of such weapons could prove far more hazardous than nuclear testing; indeed, a minor test in Utah resulted in a flock of dead sheep and a national scandal because of a shift in the wind.”[93]

On April 30, 1969, when Matthew Meselson of Harvard University briefed members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the CBW issue, he told senators that nerve gas, specifically VX, “killed 6,000 sheep inUtah.”[94]

Later in the hearing, Meselson said, “It appears that VX or an agent closely related to it was responsible for the accidental killing of approximately 6,000 sheep near the Dugway proving ground in Utah last March.  The sheep were grazing within an area of approximately 200 square miles located at an average distance of approximately 30 miles from a test area where an aircraft had conducted an operation test of a nerve gas spray system.”[95]

On May 21, 1969, members of Congress drew an admission – or so it was reported – from Army officials regarding the Dugway sheep incident.   The story serves as an example of the manner in which bullying congressmen pressure witnesses to commit perjury and of the failure of a major newspaper to provide competent coverage of a technologically complicated story.

Under the headline “Army Admits Its Nerve Gas Killed 6,000 Sheep,” the Times story began: “Under Congressional prodding, the Army admitted for the first time today that its nerve gas killed 6,000 sheep in Utah more than 14 months ago.”

Breathlessly, the story continued:

The admission was wrung from three Army officials, a shred at a time, during half a day of hard and angry questioning by members of the House Subcommittee on Conservation and Natural Resources.

The Army men also explained how the incident had happened through the malfunction of a spraying device on an airplane.

After they left the hearing, Dr. William M. Stewart, the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service, conceded with seeming reluctance that a threat to life, including human, still existed at the same test site, despite tightened security measures.

Two or three members of the subcommittee went into the hearing, which began yesterday, persuaded that the Army had resorted to “a pattern of deception,” as Representative Guy Vander Jagt, Republican of Michigan, said at one point.

Representative Henry S. Reuss, Democrat of Wisconsin, the subcommittee chairman, put the Army men on notice, from the moment he swore them in as witnesses that their credibility was on trial.

“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” he asked.  His eyebrows shot up, and his voice was loud and hard when he pronounced the word “nothing.” [96]

The Times noted that the Army had repeatedly denied responsibility for the sheep kill, even though it compensated the ranchers.

Since the subcommittee members were already convinced that the Army had caused the deaths, they spent most of the hearing today examining the army’s handling of the incident, particularly its public and semipublic denials of responsibility.

The Army spokesmen confirmed, after much verbal jousting, that the public information officer at Dugway had not told the truth when he told reporters last March that Dugway had done no testing that could have caused the sheep to die.

General Stone said the Army had ‘finally and definitely’ identified the poison in the sheep as nerve gas in mid-May last year. [97]

Reuss then got K.C. Emerson, acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for research and development, to admit that it was “conceivable” that a future test might expose travelers along Highway 40 to nerve gas.[98]

In August 1969, Charles Goodell (R-New York) warned, as quoted in the Congressional Record: “[L]et us suppose that VX again escaped from a testing site.  Suppose instead of drifting to a field of sheep, the nerve gas drifted to a city or town of people.  The deadly nerve gas VX is colorless and odorless.  The protection required against its very rapid fatal effect is a gas mask and protective clothing. First aid suggested is atropine.  What chances under these circumstances would our people have of surviving?”[99]

Ultimately, the Dugway incident was a major factor in stigmatizing the U.S. CBW as foolhardy, as a threat to humanity itself.  It helped raise the political price of continuing the program to a point beyond that which the political marketplace could bear.  It led to journalistic exposés, congressional hearings, and ultimately to Nixon’s renunciation of biological weapons – a decision which was, to a great extent, a jettisoning of the BW program in an attempt to save the CW program, which was thought to be of far greater military significance.

In a 1978 article, two top experts on CBW, Amoretta M. Hoeber and Joseph D. Douglass Jr., wrote that, “Triggered in part by the Dugway sheep incident of 1968, the U.S. chemical warfare capability underwent a rapid and sharp decline in the past decade.”[100]  Hoeber and Douglass wrote in 1979 that “the connection of the sheep deaths to the chemical test is usually presumed.”[101]

In 1981. Dale van Atta, an associate of Jack Anderson, wrote that the Dugway mishap occurred when “something went wrong” and “A feckless bree4ze unmoored a cloud of lethal gas and floated it out of the compound and over a stretch of barren countryside, leaving 6000 sheep dead in its wake.

“When the Army admitted to what had happened, a nationwide outburst of protest shocked President Richard Nixon into putting a hold on the entire U.S. chemical weapons program. . . . The public reaction forcing the hand of the president points up the emotional volatility of the issue.”[102]

 

SOVIET ROLE?

If the Dugway sheep incident had not occurred, it would have been necessary to invent it.  Given that the cause of the sheep’s deaths was never determined, and that it seemed to closely mimic the effects of a nerve gas accident, it is possible that it was, in fact, invented – either by protesters seeking to highlight and exaggerate the danger of CBW testing or by the party that received the greatest benefit from the incident.  The party that benefited the most was, of course, the Soviet Union, which obtained a monopoly on significant development of biological weapons.

Given the presumed Soviet penetration of the U.S. CBW program, the Soviets probably possessed VX.  They certainly had the VX isomer VR, for which a pilot production facility was built in Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in 1956.  VR is an isomer of VX – that is, it has the same chemical formula but a different molecular structure.  Ash wrote that whatever killed the sheep may have been an organophosphate compound, but “The important facts are that they don’t show the significant characteristics for positive identification that they are the same chemical compound.  The evidence suggests that they are not the same chemical structure.”[103]

VR was developed in the 1950s roughly parallel to the U.S. development of VX.

Given that it is an isomer of VX – that is, it has the same chemical formula but a different molecular structure – VR may have been reverse-engineered from VX.  Vil Mirzayanov, a physical chemist and senior researcher in the Soviet nerve gas program who became a whistleblower shortly after the Cold War – exposing the Novichok program – told David Wise that the Soviet version of VX, called Agent 33, and binary chemical weapons were “developed in response to American programs and Soviet intelligence.”  He said that, in the early 1960s, the Soviets obtained VX from the U.S. and had synthesized it inVolgograd by 1963.  “The people who did it got the Lenin Prize,” he said.[104]   According to Wise, Soviet intelligence learned the formula for VX itself in 1972, and began full-scale production atNovocheboksarsk that year.[105]

The idea that a Dugway CBW test might go wrong and hurt civilians had certainly occurred to CBW critics.  Robin Clarke, in his exposé We All Fall Down: The Prospect of Biological and Chemical Warfare, noted:

“The idea is that to test a biological weapon satisfactorily will involve detonating the weapon, releasing the biological material over a wide area on a proving-ground – such as the American one in Dugway,Utah – and recording the results on experimental animals set up in the area.  There is a chance that, because an aerosol will have to be used, stray particles with biological activity could be detected at some distance from the testing centre.  It seems to me that, if this is true, the testing is likely to constitute a threat to civilian populations in any case, and would probably act in this way as its own detection system. But it is also true that the incidence of even half a dozen cases of a quite rare disease in a civilian population could not be taken as strict proof of a biological test.  It would always be possible that the disease had arrived naturally.  Any detection system, then, would have to distinguish between natural particles and particles from a biological test.  How this could be done is not known in any detail and it seems to be some way from a technical solution.  The current situation is that a Pugwash study group has been set up to investigate the technicalities of such a system and to report at the earliest opportunity.”[106]

The hypothetical situation described by Clarke is not identical to the one that actually occurred at Dugway – almost simultaneously with the publication of his book – but it is close: an agent being tested atDugway gets loose and threatens civilians.  Clarke even noted that Pugwash had been studying the problem!  Of course, representatives of the Soviets and the Soviet bloc were heavily involved in Pugwash, so they would have been involved in any such study.

In addition, David Wise, in Cassidy’s Run, reported an incident that could have served as the inspiration for the Dugway sheep kill.  On June 15, 1965, near a Soviet facility in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) that produced soman, the Volga turned white from an immense fish kill that extended 50 miles.  According to Wise, it resulted from the closing of gates at a hydroelectric plant, which lowered the water level by 12 feet, exposing a greater part of the volume to the sun and raising the temperature of the water.  However, “The nerve-gas plant was immediately suspected as the logical cause,” Wise wrote.  And that was bad luck for a man named Boris Libman, who had won the Lenin Prize for his work on chemical weapons.

“As the chief engineer at the plant, a nonethnic Russian, and a Jew, he was an obvious target.  Nor was it easy for Libman to prove that pollution from the nerve-gas plant had not somehow contributed to the fish kill.  Libman might also have been blamed because Moscow had begun a large-scale program of hydropower construction up and down the Volga; to admit that the power station had caused the fish kill might have brought that project to a halt.

“On March 9, 1966, Boris Libman was convicted of negligence and sentenced to two years in a prison labor camp in nearby Volsky.”[107]

Perhaps the officials at Dugway should have considered themselves lucky.

 

THE USEFUL INCIDENT

Thus, we are left with these possible explanations for the Dugway/sheep controversy:

1) The U.S. Army covered up the cause of the sheep kill (until exposed by other elements of the U.S. government).

2) The ranchers covered up the cause of the sheep kill.

3) The Soviets or anti-DPG activists covered up the cause of the sheep kill.

4) Someone else covered up the cause of the sheep kill.

5) No one covered up the cause of the sheep kill.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. Army was so unpopular that the answer just had to be #1, the evidence notwithstanding.  In the 1980s, those who presented themselves to the public as biological weapons experts would simply assume that the Sverdlovsk controversy and the Yellow Rain controversy were the result of the U.S. government’s coverup of the real causes of those phenomena (tainted meat and bee excrement, respectively).

To use the Dugway incident as a tool to shut down the U.S. CBW, there was no requirement that the Dugway-did-it theory be plausible.  Indeed, its lack of plausibility made it more effective as a propaganda weapon.

If the Dugway/sheep scenario had been plausible – if the test were thought to have killed, say, five sheep on a mountain ten miles from the test site – the event probably would have had little effect on the public debate.  The lesson for the public might have been: Just stay more than ten miles away, and you’re safe.  But 6,400 sheep dying 27 to 80 miles away – that was spectacular!  If that really happened, a slight change in wind direction on March 13, 1968 could have wiped out motorists on U.S. 40 or, just maybe, all 350,000 people in Salt Lake City.   If so, nerve gas is so deadly and so uncontrollable that it must never be tested in the open air, or tested at all.  If it is that dangerous, nerve gas certainly must not be manufactured or stored or transported in such a way that it might come near people or animals – “near” meaning within 80 or 100 miles, or maybe 200, because if you can’t test it, who knows what distance is safe?  Dugway Proving Ground was bigger than Rhode Island.  If that area wasn’t big enough for safe testing of these weapons, where could anyone test them, or make them, or store them, or move them?

As Seymour Hersh noted in an August 1968 New York Times article, “Inevitably, the arguments against chemical and biological weapons have a strong emotional overtone; the subject is almost too horrible for rational debate.”[108]

If the Dugway/sheep scenario had been plausible, the Army probably would have accepted responsibility in a timely manner.  Instead, the Army waited for evidence to be gathered, until it had to be ordered to take the blame, and the Army’s “foot-dragging” was seen as an attempt to hide what really happened.  And if the Army would cover up something so “obvious” as the “fact” that the sheep were killed by the nerve gas test, what else might the Army – indeed, the entire military-industrial complex – be covering up?

Perhaps someone had waited long enough for a real accident to discredit the U.S. CBW program.  Perhaps they took matters into their own hands.

At this date, it may be impossible to determine what really happened in the vicinity of Dugway, Utah on March 13-15, 1968, and in the weeks and months thereafter.  Political imperatives put a stop to the scientific investigation before it could reach a definite conclusion.  It would not be the last time that the public was ill-served by the mixing of science and politics.

 

 

—————————————–

NOTE ON DR. OSGUTHORPE

One person, more than any other, had the most influence on making the Dugway-did-it theory the accepted wisdom.

 

Dr. D.A. Osguthorpe was mentioned most frequently as the source for Army-incriminating information; he was apparently the go-to person for anti-Army quotes; and his multiple conflicts of interest went unnoted in news accounts.  Those conflicts included Osguthorpe’s appointment as a personal representative of Governor Rampton, who had already demanded that the Army take responsibility, and his being a land-owner in the area himself through Osguthorpe and Sons Livestock Company.  According to C. Grant Ash, Osguthorpe had a herd of sheep in the south end of Skull Valley at the time of the incident,[109] which raises the possibility of a personal financial motivation in blaming the Army.

Ash wrote, regarding Osguthorpe’s possible bias and alleged tendency to exaggerate:  “He was not a bad guy!  I think he was trying to do a good job, but he was no scientist.”[110]

While investigators said that they had found 15 dead rabbits, rodents, birds, and other small wild animals – a number that was within the normal range – Osguthorpe claimed to have found one jack rabbit that showed signs of incoordination and twitching.[111]

As time went on, Osguthorpe’s accounts became more elaborate and, it appears, less accurate.  Fourteen months after the Dugway incident, he testified about it at a hearing, chaired by Henry Reuss (D-Wisconsin), of the Conservation and Natural Resources Subcommittee of the House Government Operations Committee.   He mentioned a “gate” that failed to close and that caused the release of VX at higher altitudes than the Army had planned.  He claimed, based on his study of weather reports, that the cloud of nerve gas was caught by wind that carried it north over Highway 40, then carried it southeast over the highway, and that a rainstorm at 11 p.m. washed it down onto the sheep (at which point the nerve agent would have been aloft for five and a half hours).

According to the New York Times account of the hearing, “Dr. Osguthorpe said he asked the authorities at Dugway, when he first found the dying sheep, whether they had been testing a chemical agent that could have caused the disaster.  He said they told him that they tested no such agents since the previous July.

“Representative Guy Vander Jagt, Republican of Michigan, asked Dr. Osguthorpe whether he could have saved some of the sheep if he had not been, as he said with the barest hint of a smile, ‘misled.’  Dr.Osguthorpe said he could have.”[112]

On May 22, 1969, Osguthorpe told a congressional panel [Reuss’s] that anything toxic enough “to kill this many sheep could kill people.”  He claimed that he had received no cooperation from the Army for nine days after the incident, at which point it was too late to save many of the animals.  (Osguthorpe later claimed that, while in Washington to testify, his hotel room was broken into, although “Nothing was missing.  Somebody just went through my things.”  He said, “There was a specific paper I needed the next morning” which he had set out, but the paper was gone when he returned from dinner, and he found it the next day, placed in a book.  He said the only type of person who could possibly have been responsible “would be someone connected with the Communist Party.”[113]  The Post quoted a New Republicarticle to the effect that Osguthorpe did not report the break-in to the hotel or to Washington police.)

On July 31, 1969, Representative McCarthy called for the U.S. government “to offer definitive proof” that BW activities at Fort Detrick were not responsible for the deaths, reported by local farmer John H. Hall, of more than 80 cows in the previous six and a half years.  Another 150 cows became sterile or had to be destroyed, Hall claimed.  Autopsies had been inconclusive.  At the same hearing at which McCarthy made his statement, Osguthorpe testified that a mysterious disease had appeared among newborn calves in the Dugway area, and his “theory is that this is a toxin, a biological agent” from Dugway.[114]

Osguthorpe surfaced in the news again more than two years after President Nixon’s renunciation of biological weapons.

The New York Times reported in April 1971 that, “Despite President Nixon’s repudiation of germ warfare 16 months ago, there are indications that Army research is going on much as it did before. . . .

“A government official connected with the program, who isn’t a scientist, says the roadsides near Dugway ‘are just covered with carcasses of rodents.’  And several people say that a number of wild animals in the area have been found to be infected with the plague: plague germs are a standard component of the biological warfare arsenal. . . .

“The 1968 incident, for which the Army belatedly admitted responsibility, came when nerve gas escaped in the wind during a test and took the lives of 6,400 sheep.  Memories of that incident were revived earlier this year [1971] when 1,200 sheep died in another area near Dugway.  But state and government veterinarians explained that this time the sheep died from eating the poisonous halogeton weed, which grows freely in Utah.

“A close look at this latest sheep kill, however, shows signs of a mystery as puzzling as that surrounding the chemical and biological program itself.  One element: The Salt Lake City veterinarian who served as special representative to the governor of Utah after the first sheep kill flatly states halogeton wasn’t the cause in the latest case.  Dr. D.A. Osguthorpe, who for this latest kill was called in by the ranchers to do autopsies on the sheep, declares that ‘the typical symptoms of halogeton were not present.’  Dr. Osguthorpe says he still hasn’t been able to determine the cause.”

Another scientist told the Times that the sheep were the victims of halogeton, but that the halogeton leaves were “eight times more toxic than you usually find under those conditions,” for reasons that “we just don’t understand.”

The Times report continued: “At least one scientist, who testified at congressional hearings on chemical and biological warfare, is willing to offer a possible explanation.  Clarence C. Gordon, a professor of botany at the University of Montana, says that halogeton comes up year after year and that ‘there could have been something from Dugway (testing) that has accumulated (in the soil) over the years that could have caused part of that buildup.’”[115]

Sesser, Stanford N., “Germs as Weapons: Critics Charge Army Is Continuing Research On Biological Warfare,” The New York Times, April 2, 1971, p. 1.

 

—————————————–

EPILOGUE TO THE DUGWAY INCIDENT: RAY PECK & CO.

The Dugway incident continues to affect attitudes toward the Army and its CBW program.  All sorts of ailments and calamities are blamed on the Dugway test and on nuclear testing by people who refer to themselves as “downwinders.”

• In 1993, Lee Davidson, Washington correspondent for the Deseret News, reported on unacknowledged victims of the Army’s incompetence: Ray Peck and his family.  The headline: “Like Sheep to the Slaughter?”

Ray Peck remembers the wintry morning of March 14, 1968, in Skull Valley as crisp and beautiful.  “It was so pretty.  I couldn’t resist eating a handful of the new snow.”

Then he saw the dead birds.  In the distance, a dying rabbit struggled.  “It was weird, but I just went to work,” Peck says.  He, like the animals, had been outside the previous night when a notorious Army nerve-agent accident proceeded invisibly.  Soon, 6,000 sheep near his home would die.  A helicopter from the Army’s nearby Dugway Proving Ground would land in his yard and disgorge officials who Peck says collected dead wildlife and performed blood tests on the frightened family.

Scientists say nerve agent VX from an Army jet killed the sheep, probably through contact with droplets on plants and snow – like the snow Peck ate.

The article was based in part on documents the reporter claimed to have obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.[116]

At great length – 3,425 words – the article went on to detail how “Peck and his family were possibly” – possibly – “exposed to small levels of VX in 1968,” that they became sick, and that their illnesses “may” be symptoms of low-level VX exposure.

“Scientific reports say some others who were also exposed to VX in Army tests have reported similar illnesses – but scientists say insufficient evidence exists to prove a connection.  But they cannot disprove it either,” Davidson wrote.

Symptoms reportedly suffered by Peck – who, the evening of the test, was “precisely between” the two sheep herds that were mainly affected – included headaches, numbness and burning from his left hip to his knee, and what Peck called “bouts of paranoia.”  The paranoia, he said, affected his ability to work on cars or in the upholstery business.

In addition, after the incident, members of his family also experienced headaches.  His wife suffered three problem pregnancies, two of which ended in miscarriage, and two daughters who were children at the time of the incident suffered miscarriages and stillbirths.

“Since leaving employment at Dugway, Peck has worked around hazardous chemicals – including cyanide – at other jobs.  But he said his health problems began at the time of the sheep kill. . . . He said he first decided to pursue the matter after reading information from the Downwinders watchdog group about effects of military tests on others – and even contacted some lawyers about his options.”  A spokesman for Downwinders – a group seeking to show that people were seriously harmed by various types of government testing – said that “We’ve had many people in Tooele County come to us complaining they think Army tests made them sick.  We’ve found some interesting leukemia clusters.”

Davidson noted that, many years after the sheep died, the incident continued to be a matter of controversy.  “The 25-year-old incident affects a new issue today: the planned burning of chemical arms at Tooele Army Depot.”[117]  The article noted that the Army was required to destroy, in the incineration process, only 999,999/1,000,000ths of the agent, and that, if VX in “miniscule” amounts can cause such seriouslongterm illness, no release is safe.

Indeed, that is true, if a few molecules of VX can cause longterm health problems including headaches, numbness, miscarriages and stillbirths, and leukemia, along with bouts of paranoia.

• Eight years later, Davidson returned to the Ray Peck story, in an article co-written with another staff writer and entitled “Toxic Utah: A land littered with poisons / Utah has paid a high price for U.S. military might.”

“The Cold War was hot in Utah, though few realized it.

“The government chose the remote, low-population state for secretive weapons tests that bombarded it with nerve gas, germ weaponry and radioactive fallout.”  Among the casualties was “Ray Peck’s family in Skull Valley.  They were likely hit with low doses of the nerve gas from a Dugway Proving Ground test that accidentally killed 6,000 sheep near their home in 1968.  The Pecks lived but haven’t been the same since. . . .

“In recent years, Peck also suffered skin cancer and heart problems.  ‘I wonder if the tests had something to do with that,’ he said in December [2000].”[118]

• In 2004, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that,

In March 1968, Alan Vorwaller was a first-grader at a Tooele elementary school, playing in the snow during recess.  The same day about 6,000 sheep from two herds were found dead in neighboringSkull Valley after chemical-weapons testing at the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground, 40 miles southwest of Tooele.

Thirty-two years later, Vorwaller’s hip was so riddled with tumors that it simply snapped, [his widow Bonnie] Adamsson-Vorwaller said.  “It’s the exposure in Utah that caused his death,” she said in a telephone interview from Austin, where the couple moved 11 years ago.

“The doctors don’t know which poisons caused it,” she conceded. “But it follows something called the Hiroshima-Nagasaki pattern where, 20 to 30 years later, you get cancer. Before he died, his doctor asked him, ‘Where were you 30 years ago?’ . . .

Beverly White, a former state legislator from Tooele, says residents are leery of discussing the health hazards that exist in the west desert. It’s part of the “conspiracy of silence,” she noted.

White represents 250 former Dugway workers who suffer from cancer, multiple sclerosis, and heart and lung ailments.  They have unsuccessfully sought compensation from the federal government.

“I believe every bit of it,” White said of Adamsson-Vorwaller’s allegations. “It happens all the time.”[119]

 

 

 



[1] U.S. Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, Potential Military Chemical/Biological Agents and Compounds. Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 1990, p. 95-97, cited in Takafuji, Ernest T. and AllartB. Kok, “The Chemical Warfare Threat and the Military Healthcare Provider,” Textbook of Military Medicine, Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, 1997, posted at https://ccc.apgea.army.mil/sarea/products/textbook/Web_Version/chapters/chapter_4.htm, accessed April 7, 2007.

[2] Mauroni, Albert J., America’s Struggle with Chemical-Biological Warfare, Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishing, 2000, p. 34-35.  I have been told by a knowledgeable source that, in previous tests, no VX had ever been detected farther than eight miles from the target.

[3] Wise, David, Cassidy’s Run: The Secret Spy War Over Nerve Gas, New York: Random House, 2000, p. 37.

[4] Brodine, Virginia, Peter P. Gaspar, and Albert J. Pallmann, “The Wind from Dugway,” Environment, vol. 11 no. 1, January-February 1969, p. 2.

[5] Boffey, Philip M. and D.S. Greenberg, “6000 Sheep Stricken near CBW Center,” Science, new series vol. 159 no. 3822, March 29, 1968, p. 1442.

[6] Brodine, p. 4.

[7] Mauroni, p. 33-34.

[8] Waugh, John C., “Evidence eludes searchers / Utah sheep-loss probe pushed,” The Christian Science Monitor, April 16, 1968, p. 1; Mauroni, p. 29.

[9] Mauroni, p. 29.

[10] Waugh, p. 1.

[11] Mauroni, p. 32.

[12] Brodine, p. 4-5.

[13] Boffey and Greenberg.

[14] Waugh, p. 1.

[15] Turner, Wallace, “Nerve Gas Suspected in Deaths of Sheep in Utah,” The New York Times, March 22, 1968, p. 22.

[16] Brodine, p. 4-5.

[17] Boffey and Greenberg.

[18] Liddell, Joseph T., “Mystery Epidemic Kills 5,000 Sheep,” Deseret News, March 19, 1968, p. B1.

[19] “5,000 Sheep Dead In Utah; Expert Is Rushed To Scene,” The New York Times, March 21, 1968, p. 43.

[20] Mauroni, p. 32.

[21] Hersh, Seymour M., “Chemical and biological weapons – The Secret Arsenal,” The New York Times, August 25, 1968, p. SM26.

[22] Hersh.  It should be noted that the term “organophosphate” is used in CBW lingo to refer to some substances that are not technically in that category because they are not esters of phosphoric acid or one of its higher compounds. (An ester is a compound produced by reaction between acid and alcohol.)

[23] Turner.

[24] Mauroni, p. 31.

[25] Ash, C. Grant, “History of the Skull Valley Sheep Deaths in 1968,” unpublished memorandum, p. 3.

[26] Mauroni, p. 33.

[27] Mauroni, p. 39; Ash, p. 3.

[28] Mauroni, p. 39; Ash, p. 5.

[29] Mauroni, p. 33.

[30] Turner, Wallace, “Army is Blamed in Sheep Deaths,” The New York Times, March 23, 1968, p. 32; Cohn, Victor, “Utah Governor Believes Nerve Gas Killed Sheep,” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 1968, p. 9.  The Los Angeles Timesaccount of Rampton’s remarks added that “Most of the sheep were only [!] 15 to 35 miles away.”

[31] Boffey and Greenberg.

[32] Boffey and Greenberg.

[33] “Blame Gas in Sheep Deaths,” Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1968, p. 26; “Utah Officials Blame Death of 6,400 Sheep On Army Nerve Gas,” The Wall Street Journal, March 25, 1968, p. 12; “Utah Investigator ‘Positive’ Gas Test Killed 6,400 Sheep,” The New York Times, March 24, 1968, p. 63.  The Times article consistently referred to Osguthorpe as “Oglethorpe.”

[34] Mauroni, p. 37.

[35] Mauroni, p. 36.

[36] “Army Concedes Its Gas May Have Killed Sheep,” The Washington Post, March 26, 1968, p. A3.

[37] Cohn, Victor, “Sheep Died From Gas, Tests Hint,” The Washington Post, April 3, 1968, p. A10.

[38] Boffey and Greenberg.

[39] Boffey, Philip M. (writing as P.M.B.), “Dead Sheep Show Signs of Nerve Gas,” Science, New Series Vol. 160 no. 3826, April 26, 1968, p. 406.  Emphasis added.

[40] Pearson, Drew and Jack Anderson, “Vets Examining Utah Sheep Also Ill,” The Washington Post, April 1, 1968, p. B11. Ellipsis and paraphrase in original.

[41] “Blame Gas in Sheep Deaths.”

[42] Brodine, p. 2.

[43] “Plan to Dump Gas is Defended,” The Washington Post, May 22, 1969, p. A3.

[44] “Humans Held Unaffected in Gas Test Area,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1968, p. A3.

[45] “U.S. Links Army Gas to Death of Sheep,” The New York Times, April 13, 1968, p. 12; “Nerve Gas tests defended as Safe,” The New York Times, April 14, 1968, p. 62.

[46] “U.S. Agency Blames Gas in Sheep Deaths,” Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1968, p. N10.

[47] “U.S. Agency Blames Gas in Sheep Deaths,” p. N10; Brodine, p. 6; Mauroni, p. 36.

[48] “Curb Asked on Biological Weapons,” The Washington Post, May 10, 1968, p. A25.

[49] Taylor, Frederick, “The Bookshelf: Subject of Gas Warfare,” review of Chemical and Biological Warfare by Seymour M. Hersh, The Wall Street Journal, June 19, 1968, p. 16.

[50] Mauroni, p. 41.

[51] “Army Accepts Claim in Utah Sheep Deaths,” Chicago Tribune, July 11, 1968, p. C15.

[52] “Army Backs $376,685 Claim on Sheep dead in Gas Test,” The Wall Street Journal, August 21, 1968, p. 11.

[53] Mauroni, p. 36.

[54] Ash, p. 22.

[55] Mauroni, p. 30.

[56] Hersh, p. SM26.

[57] Hersh, p. SM26.

[58] Stone, BG William W., “Report of Investigation Concerning Sheep Deaths in Skull Valley, Utah,” Washington, D.C.: US Army Materiel Command, no date.

[59] Ash, p. 4.

[60] Boffey, Philip M., “Nerve Gas: Dugway Accident Linked to Utah Sheep Kill,” Science, vol. 162 no. 3861, December 27, 1968, p. 1460.  Boffey would later become an activist, working for Ralph Nader’s organization, on whose behalf he would write an exposé asserting that the National Academy of Sciences was too pro-industry.  See Cohn, Victor, “Academy of Sciences Criticized on Advice,” The Washington Post, April 25, 1973, p. A2.

[61] Brodine, p. 4.

[62] Waugh, p. 1.

[63] Sullivan, Walter, “The Deadly Peril When Nerve Gas Escapes,” The New York Times, March 31, 1968, p. E7.

[64] Waugh, p. 1.  Emphasis in the original.

[65] Boffey and Greenberg.

[66] Sullivan.  Emphasis added.

[67] Boffey.

[68] See, for example, Liddell, Joseph T., “Nerve Gas Not Gas at All,” Deseret News, March 27, 1968, p. B15, and “Pesticide Found on Sheep Range,” Deseret News, March 28, 1968, p. B1.

[69] “Panel traces sheep loss to Army nerve-gas test,” Christian Science Monitor, March 26, 1968, p. 8; Fenton, Jack, “Mystery Deepens in Death of Utah Sheep Herd,” Tribune, March 25, 1968.

[70] Not the TV reporter who became famous during the Gulf War.

[71] Ash, p. 4.

[72] Bengelsdorf, Irving S., “Germ Warfare – a Grim Pandora’s Box,” Los Angeles Times, October 13, 1968, p. K1.

[73] Mauroni, p. 34-35.  I have been told by a scientist who worked at DPG that, in previous tests, no VX had ever been detected farther than eight miles from the target.

[74] Ash, p. 2.

[75] Mauroni, p. 35.

[76] Tucker, Jonathan B., War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al Qaeda, New York: Pantheon Books, 2006, p. 211.

[77] Ivanov, P., B. Georgiev, K. Kirov, and L. Venkov, “Correlations Between Concentration of Cholinesterase and the Resistance of Animals to Organophosphorous Compounds,” Drug and Chemical Toxicology, vol. 16 no. 1, 1993, p. 81-99, cited in Subcommittee on Chronic Reference Doses for Selected Chemical Warfare Agents, National Research Council, Review of the U.S. Army’s Health Risk Assessments for Oral Exposure to Six Chemical-Warfare Agents, The National Academies Press, 1999.

[78] Hersh, Seymour M., “A Lift of the Veil On CBW Testing,” The Washington Post, May 26, 1969, p. A20.

[79] Keatley, Robert, “The Pentagon’s New (Fumbling) Image,” The Wall Street Journal, July 14, 1969, p. 12.

[80] Committee on Confronting Terrorism in Russia, National Research Council, High-Impact Terrorism: Proceedings of a Russian-American Workshop, Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2002, p. 119-120.

[81] Ash, p. 55.

[82] Douglass, Joseph D., Jr., “Chemical Weapons: An Imbalance of Terror,” Strategic Review, Summer 1982, v. 10, no. 3, p. 36-47.

[83] Hess, John L., “Researchers’ Commune In Wales to Promote ‘Soft Technology,’” The New York Times, June 9, 1972, p. 14.

[84] Hersh, “Chemical and biological weapons – The Secret Arsenal,” p. SM26.

[85] Amter, Robert, “War of Nerves,” letter to the editor, The New York Times, September 15, 1968, p. SM40.

[86] Hersh, p. SM26; “Ties to Army Ended by Biology Society,” The New York Times, May 9, 1968, p. 29.

[87] Hersh, p. SM26.

[88] Hersh, Seymour, “Silent Death,” The Progressive, May 1969.

[89] Myerson, Bess, “You Don’t Have to Buy War, Mrs. Smith,” listing in catalog of the American Friends Service Committee Video and Film Lending Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[90] The story of the dead sheep continued to resonate in the news media for years to come.  In 1980, shortly after I was hired as a reporter for the Fort Payne (Alabama) Times-Journal, I was told that the paper’s previous editor had been fired for perpetrating an April Fools’ Day joke that combined the Dugway sheep incident with the then-recent incident at Three Mile Island.  She had put a picture of dead cows on the front page with a headline referring to the local nuclear power plant: “Bellafonte Melts Down.”

[91] Brody, Jane E., “Germs as Deadly Weapons,” The New York Times, March 9, 1969, p. E7.

[92] Pecotte, John, “Voice of Youth: Morality of Chemical Warfare,” Chicago Tribune, March 30, 1969, p. F7.

[93] “Handle with Care,” editorial, The Wall Street Journal, April 29, 1969, p. 20.

[94] U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, “Chemical and Biological Warfare,” June 23, 1969 (“sanitized” publication based on transcript of April 30, 1969 secret hearing), p. 5.

[95] U.S. Senate, p. 6.

[96] Reed, Roy, “Army Admits Its Nerve Gas Killed 6,000 Sheep,” The New York Times, May 22, 1969, p. 14.

[97] Reed.

[98] Reed.

[99] Goodell, Charles, Congressional Record, August 11, 1969, p. S 9523.

[100] Hoeber, Amoretta M. and Joseph D. Douglass Jr., “The Chemical Warfare Problem,” American Security Council Washington Report, September 22, 1978, p. 1-F.

[101] Hoeber, Amoretta M. and Joseph D. Douglass Jr., “The Neglected Threat of Chemical Warfare,” International Security, vol. 3 no. 1, Summer 1979, p. 55.

[102] Van Atta, Dale, “Replenishing the Poison Arsenal,” This World, December 13, 1981, p. 17.

[103] Ash, p. 43-44.

[104] Wise, p. 193.

[105] Wise, p. 65.

[106] Clarke, Robin, We All Fall Down: The Prospect of Biological and Chemical Warfare [British edition of The Silent Weapons: The Realities of Chemical and Biological Warfare], London: Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 1968, p. 186.

[107] Wise, p. 67-68.

[108] Hersh, “Chemical and biological weapons – The Secret Arsenal,” p. SM26.

[109] Ash, p. 18.

[110] Ash, p. 30.

[111] Unna, Warren and Jean M. White, “Plan to Dump Gas is Defended,” The Washington Post, May 22, 1969, p. A3.

[112] Reed, Roy, “Gas or Germ Tests in Air are Scored,” The New York Times, May 21, 1969, p. 10.

[113] “Room Searched, Says Nerve Gas Witness,” The Washington Post, May 31, 1969, p. A2; “Nerve Gas Witness Lays Room Searching to Reds,” The Washington Post, June 1, 1969, p. 11.

[114] Hanrahan, John, “Probes at Detrick Seen as Unreliable,” The Washington Post, August 1, 1969, p. D8.

[115] Sesser, Stanford N., “Germs as Weapons: Critics Charge Army Is Continuing Research On Biological Warfare,” The New York Times, April 2, 1971, p. 1.

[116] I requested copies of these documents from Davidson.  On May 10, 2007, he e-mailed me: “I think I have long since discarded or lost the original documents (or may have given them to Peck).”

[117] Davidson, Lee, “Like Sheep to the Slaughter?,” Deseret News, May 30, 1993, p. B1.

[118] Davidson, Lee and Joe Baumann, “Toxic Utah: A land littered with poisons / Utah has paid a high price for U.S. military might,” Deseret News, February 12, 2001, posted at http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,250010322,00.html, accessed May 31, 2007.

[119] Smart, Christopher, “Widow says Tooele toxins killed mate,” Salt Lake Tribune, March 4, 2004, reprinted in NucNews at http://nucnews.net/nucnews/2004nn/0403nn/040304nn.htm, accessed May 31, 2007.

 

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