Watchdog group wants probe of missing nerve agent

Published: Thursday, March 24 2011 6:36 p.m. MDT

The main gate at Dugway Proving Ground military base Thursday, Jan. 27, 2010, about 85 miles southwest Salt Lake City, Utah. The military base, which carries out tests to protect troops against biological and biological attacks, was locked down overnight because a small amount of a nerve agent was unaccounted for. The missing vial prompted a lockdown late Wednesday afternoon that lasted until the agent was found early Thursday. The Army says no one was in danger and the lockdown was ordered as a precaution.

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A citizen watchdog group is demanding Gov. Gary Herbert convene a task force to probe questions surrounding a misplaced vial of nerve agent at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground.

The governor evidently shares the group's main concern, the Army's long delay in notifying civilian authorities with details about the emergency. A spokeswoman said the governor considered the timetable "unacceptable." But the governor plans no further action. A written statement from the governor's office says, "While there was delayed notification of the governor that was inconsistent with protocol, the governor met with Dugway officials, including the commander, and the issue has been resolved to the governor's satisfaction."

A 12-hour lockdown of Dugway began unexpectedly at 5:24 p.m. on Jan. 26. No one was allowed to leave or enter the base until the vial of VX nerve agent was secured. Although the Army released limited details in the course of the evening, the military did not reveal that the cause of concern was VX until the next morning, 16 hours after it went missing.

At a press conference Thursday at the Utah state Capitol, Steve Erickson, director of the Citizens Education Project, said Dugway failed to notify appropriate officials. "We find this to be not only astonishing but very disturbing," Erickson told reporters. "A weapon of mass destruction went missing for 12 hours. The top officials in state government were not alerted. In fact, they found out about this incident at Dugway by the media."

A letter the group delivered to Herbert on Thursday relies on information obtained under the GRAMA open-records law. "Records from your office and that of the Tooele County sheriff indicate that the Army kept both of you and the first off-base responders in the dark," the letter states. "This is simply unacceptable, and indicative of either a lack of preparedness, or of compliance with demands for secrecy from the military that demand explanation."

Letters are also being sent to all five members of Utah's Congressional delegation, as well as legislative leadership.

The Army initially thought the VX had been stolen. It was found, on base, at 3 a.m. on Jan. 27. If a thief or terrorist had smuggled it off base, civilian emergency workers would have had no idea what they were dealing with or what to look for. "If someone knew how to best deploy that quantity of VX, perhaps in a very crowded place, you could see results of hundreds and perhaps thousands of people dead," Erickson said.

The Army disputes that, saying the vial of VX, holding less than a quarter-teaspoon, could only kill about a hundred people and that would only be under an extreme worst-case scenario.

On the night the VX went missing, Dugway officials say they couldn't explain anything publicly because they were hamstrung by Army Regulation 50-6. It requires Army officials to "report situations to the public per local agreements," but it has a built-in delay in more serious situations. In cases that involve "loss of chemical agent and criminal or terrorist acts," it requires a base commander to go up the chain of command and get permission from higher authorities before information can be released.

A timetable provided by Dugway spokeswoman Paula Thomas indicates it took almost 16 hours for Dugway's commander to get permission from the Pentagon to reveal any significant information. Dugway began working its way up that chain when the incident first came to light around 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 26, but did not receive approval to make any notifications until the next morning at 9:18 a.m.

"That was after the VX was found," Erickson said. "So the incident's all done and over with at that point. So I wouldn't hardly consider that to be appropriate notification of proper authorities."

The governor's office said the base commander, Col. William E. King IV, assured the governor that the notification problem would be rectified and that such delays would not happen again.

In the records obtained through GRAMA, the citizens' group found that the news media had more information about the unfolding incident before most public agencies learned of it.

"The governor's office provided a four sentence internal email between office staff who had seen the TV news." Erickson's statement said. "Frank Park, the Tooele County sheriff, wrote that his office 'had no contact with the depot. Our information gained during that time was from the news media only.'"

Although Erickson said he made records requests with state agencies, such as the Utah Department of Public Safety and the Utah Division of Homeland Security, both failed to respond during the required 10-day time frame.

The task force should demand answers to a number of questions, particularly what emergency notification and response procedures are in place for an incident such as this and if any changes were made as a result of the missing or mislabeled vial, Erickson said.

Other critical information state and federal officials should seek includes where the vial was misplaced, where it was found and if those labeling procedures have been improved.

Email: amyjoi@desnews.com; hollenhorst@desnews.com

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