U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials say the Army never said just why it wants to obtain a huge tract of public land in Utah's West Desert.
But Deseret News stories this week revealed the reason : The Army wants to clean up likely contamination on the land from Dugway Proving Ground tests.BLM officials were surprised. "We have known for some time that the Army is interested in obtaining this land, but it always said before it was to facilitate the `operational mission' of Dugway," said Jerry Meredith, chief of public affairs for the Utah office of BLM.
"The Army has never mentioned to us before that it wanted to obtain this land in order to allow for cleanup of possible hazardous materials." The BLM has not been anxious to give up the land. Not knowing about the possible contamination, Meredith said the BLM had previously turned down an Army request to fence some of the area.
The Deseret News stories reported that documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that the Army knew since at least 1979 that the contamination was likely and possibly includes unexploded chemical and biologic arms.
The documents say the Army wants a 66-square-mile area of BLM land added to Dugway boundaries to allow better cleanup or control of contamination, as well as act as a buffer for current testing.
Meredith said the BLM was not only surprised to find that Army concern about hazardous wastes may have been behind its land transfer requests, but also is upset that the BLM was never given documents outlining problems on its land.
The BLM also says it sees no reason yet that transferring the land to the Army is needed or good.
Meredith said that in 1980, the Army formally asked for the control of the lands.
"At that time they did not show any evidence that there were areas of possible hazardous materials. They did allude to the fact that there was a potential for this situation to exist in some areas," Meredith said.
That occurred even though a 1979 Army study _ available before the Army's land request, according to recently obtained documents _ suspected that the land held "unexploded munitions containing both chemical/biological agents and high explosives." Meredith said that report has never been shown to or discussed with BLM.
That 1979 study suggested the Army quickly research the hazards in the possibly contaminated areas. In 1988, two studies assessing those and other hazards were finished. They found, through a search of records, that the land had been used "for various unidentified chemical agents, fire bombs, rockets and smoke and mortar rounds" mostly in the 1950s or before.
However, it said because of a general absence of records, it wasn't sure how many rounds had been fired or exactly where. The studies called for more on-site investigations and an environmental assessment to guide cleanup and control plans.
Meredith said the Army in 1980 did present a strong case that 640 acres, known as the Rising Sun grid, had been contaminated by mustard gas tests. He said that area was withdrawn from public use and fenced even before that process was complete.
Meredith said that in 1985, some BLM employees learned that unexploded munitions in the larger BLM area south of Dugway might exist. "The BLM then formally requested in writing that the Army inventory and determine if a problems exists out there."
He said the BLM became aware by accident that the Army was working on reports that could supply such information when a BLM employee accidently found an early draft of one of the reports while he working on a project at the State Health Department.
"While we knew they were working on this effort, we have never seen a copy of the report or received any informational briefings or such about its contents even though we have both formally and informally requested to be able to do so," Meredith said.
He said after the BLM read about the reports in the Deseret News, it called the Army and asked for a copy. Meredith said the Army thought it had already sent the BLM a copy, but would send one now.
The BLM is not anxious to give up its jurisdiction over the land.
"We see no need to include this area in the Dugway Proving Ground at this point," Meredith said. "If problem areas are found to exist, the BLM can restrict entry or we can allow the Army to restrict entry."
He added, "Regardless of who is the surface manager, the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) would require the Army, as the potential responsible party, to clean up the site."
Dugway spokeswoman Kathy Whitaker agreed that the Army may not have to obtain control of the site to allow proper clean-up and access, but the Army feels that would be preferable. She said the area is also needed as a buffer for tests planned at Dugway.