Editor's note: This is the first of two reports by Deseret News Washington Bureau Chief Lee Davidson, dealing with information from documents obtained by the Deseret News through the Freedom of Information Act.An area of public land the size of Washington, D.C., in Utah's West Desert - where hikers and rockhounds roam - is likely contaminated with unexploded arms containing chemicals or high explosives from tests at nearby Dugway Proving Ground.
The Army is so worried about the contamination that it wants to expand Dugway's southern boundary to swallow the affected areas, which would better keep the public away, according to documents obtained by the Deseret News through the Freedom of Information Act. The documents were meant originally to be seen only by government employees.
The affected region, about 23 miles wide and 3 miles long, is now overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. It is 5 miles west of Simpson Springs in Tooele County, and about 5 miles northeast of Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge.
Public roads and trails lead into the possibly contaminated area, which is said to be a popular region for rockhounds. Part of the area has fences, but the Army admits they are flimsy, have fallen down in many places and were designed more to keep out sheep than people. And much of the area is not fenced at all and has no signs warning of danger.
The disclosure partially confirms worries by critics who say Dugway does not always confine the effects of chemical and biological tests to the base. But in the Army's defense, documents show it is now taking steps to identify and clean up or better manage its hazardous waste sites.
The documents show that the Army has realized since at least 1979 that the 66-square-mile strip may be contaminated but took few steps to warn the public or to secure the area.
That is shown in a July 1988 report by the U.S. Army Toxic and Hazardous Materials Agency, referred to by the acronym USATAHMA, based at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., that was prepared to follow up on a 1979 study about use of toxic materials at Dugway.
The new report quotes the 1979 study as describing two adjoining areas south of the base border - known as the "Yellow Jacket" area and the northern portion of the "Southern Triangle" area - as places where "unexploded munitions containing both chemical/biological agents and high explosives are suspected."
The 1979 report recommended that Dugway quickly research the hazards and problems in those two adjoining areas so that, if necessary, the areas could be brought "under proper control."
The new report said the Yellow Jacket area, or the western third of the contaminated strip, was found through a records search to have been a test area for "various unidentified chemical agents, fire bombs, rockets and smoke and mortar rounds during the 1940s and early 1950s."
Even though the report says "unidentified chemical agents" were used, Dugway spokeswoman Kathleen Whitaker said the Army believes that no deadly nerve or mustard agent was used there. "The only chemicals we think were used were to cause smoke, that sort of thing."
But documents obtained by the Deseret News say in the area on base adjacent to Yellow Jacket, the Army conducted chemical "spray missions," which normally were performed to test deadly nerve, mustard or biologic agents or materials that simulate their effects.
The report says long-time Dugway employees said unexploded munitions lying on the surface had been cleared from the Yellow Jacket area, but some unexploded shells underground could still exist - even though the area apparently has not been used since the early 1950s.
The report said a lack of records made efforts to better define past activities and their exact locations unsuccessful.
The study noted that Dugway "is attempting to withdraw this area from BLM and public domain and permanently add it to the current Dugway Proving Ground land holdings because it is potentially contaminated from past Army activities and it is needed as a safety buffer for operations currently conducted on a test area the Army refers to as the "Horizontal Grid."
Another Army study gives a hint of the significance of that last phrase, about more land being needed as a buffer for present tests.
A May 16, 1988, report by the U.S. Army Environmental Hygiene Agency (USAEHA), also based at Aberdeen Proving Ground, contains a map of general areas at Dugway expected to contain unexploded arms or other contamination from tests.
One such region is a vast, meandering area expanding exactly up to the base boundary with the Yellow Jacket area, but not beyond - almost as if test agents could recognize the base boundary and not step beyond it.
The study said that the contamination in the area reaching to the boundary resulted from use of cluster bombs and chemical tests of airplane spray systems, rockets and artillery projectiles. "Tests of the same general nature are still programmed for this area," it said.
It said in just that one area north of Yellow Jacket, to date, approximately 7,500 individual tests, including artillery, rockets and spray missions, have been conducted."
According to the July USATHAMA report, the western two-thirds of the possibly contaminated strip off base, called part of the "Southern Triangle" area, was used by Dugway as an artillery and mortar impact range (for chemical and conventional arms) under permit with the BLM during the 1950s and 1960s.
Whitaker said she believed other public uses, such as grazing, were allowed by the BLM in portions of the Southern Triangle during the same period. The Army's permit to use the area expired in 1980. It used it once since then, with temporary permission, as a buffer area during tests of new binary chemical weapons last year.
The Southern Triangle area also contained a test range called the "Rising Sun" grid, which documents say was a series of tunnels and bunkers used to conduct tests with mustard agent. The tunnels and bunkers have been destroyed, the report said.
Whitaker said the Army has a permanent use permit for the Rising Sun grid area, and the small area is fenced and has signs warning of hazard and urging people to keep away.
Of note, the USAHEA study says that depending on soil and weather conditions, mustard agent contamination in the soil can last for years and could still exist in such areas. It said one study found "that mustard has been found in the soil at the O-field disposal site at Aberdeen Proving Ground 30 years after disposal."
Just as with the Yellow Jacket area, the Army recommends that the north portion of the "Southern Triangle" area be added to Dugway's boundaries because of possible contamination and because it is needed as a safety buffer for current operations.
Whitaker said the Army ownership of the land is needed before the Army can proceed to properly clean it. She said the Army Corps of Engineers has prepared a real estate report, a sort of title abstract search, on the land. The next step is to prepare an environmental assessment of the proposed land transfer, which must include a public comment period.
In the end, if everything is in order, congressional action would be needed to transfer the property to Army control, she said.
Steve Erickson, spokesman for the watchdog group Downwinders, said he is upset about the disclosures because it shows that chemical and biological testing have affected off-base areas, and because he has often gone hiking in the possibly contaminated Yellow Jacket area.
"And I've never, ever seen any type of sign warning people to keep away or to be careful. It's a fairly popular area for rockhounding. There are some old mines that people like to check out," he said. "There are roads into there that don't require a four-wheel-drive, at least not in good weather. Anyone is free to wander on in there."
Whitaker admitted that the Yellow Jacket area is not fenced. She said the Southern Triangle area is fenced with barbed wire, but it has fallen down in many places. "Frankly, it was designed more to keep out sheep. It won't stop anyone who really wants to enter."
She said the Army also wanted to put a new fence around the Southern Triangle area, but the BLM would not approve it. BLM officials were unavailable for comment.
Erickson complained that much of the Dugway base itself also has never been fenced. He said people can and have wandered into it through potentially dangerous areas.
"This all tends to corroborate evidence that Dugway has contamination problems all over the place, and they don't know all the problems they have. They have an obligation to clean up their mess. We want that done before the base receives any new missions," he said.
However, the documents obtained by the Deseret News were prepared as part of a program to identify hazardous waste sites and to develop a plan on how to manage or clean them.
Col. Justin M. Reese is in charge of a new environmental office at Dugway. He said the new base commander, Col. Jan Van Prooyen, charged the office with the responsibility to correct mistakes of the past and pursue an ambitious program to improve the environment.
Dugway is planning to spend millions of dollars in the next several years to improve the environment. Dugway officials are also planning for on-site inspections of hazardous waste sites that could lead to their cleanup through the Army's own version of the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund.
Whitaker said the possibly contaminated Yellow Jacket and Southern Triangle areas are on the top of the list of areas Dugway wants inspected for possible cleanup.
Next: More detail on some of the other findings in Army documents prepared as part of the effort to identify and clean Dugway waste areas.