Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, wants some quick answers from the Army and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management about a huge public area in the West Des-ert that Army documents say is likely contaminated from Dugway Proving Ground tests.
"In terms of immediate action, I am asking that a determination be made about whether signs should be posted to warn of potential hazards and whether contingency plans have been drawn up to deal with exposures to munitions accidentally set off by man or animal," a statement from Owens said Wednesday.Owens is a member of the House Interior Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands. It oversees public lands such as the 66 square miles of BLM land just south of Dugway's borders that officials worry may contain buried, unexploded munitions filled with chemicals, biologic agents or high explosives.
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, is also on that subcommittee. But his press secretary, Kathleene Gallegos, said he would not issue any statement about the West Desert contamination until he has a chance to study it more.
The likely contamination was revealed publicly in Deseret News stories earlier this week, based on Army reports obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The documents show that although the Army has known about the likely contamination since at least 1979, most of the area has no warning signs, and only rather flimsy sheep fences exist in some spots. Meanwhile, the area is used by hunters, hikers, rockhounds and ranchers.
Munitions lying on the surface were cleared away, documents said. But buried munitions can become exposed in time through erosion. The Army has contractors who constantly search the Dugway Proving Ground itself for such exposed arms.
Previous stories also reported that the BLM complained that the Army had never shown it studies detailing possible contamination, and that the BLM and the Army also disagree who should keep jurisdiction over the land.
The Army wants the title transferred to Dugway from the BLM, saying that would help cleanup operations and provide a larger buffer area for ongoing tests - such as open-air tests earlier this year on the new Bigeye binary nerve gas bomb. The BLM is reluctant to have the area withdrawn permanently from public use, saying the Army could clean the area or restrict access without a title transfer.
Owens said about that question, "Considerations for public safety must predominate. The impact on mining interests, wool growers, hunters and those who use the land for recreation cannot be ignored, but must come after safety considerations."
He added, "I have been assured by the Army that cleanup will continue in cooperation with the BLM regardless of whether the land in question is withdrawn (from the BLM). Funding for the cleanup has been committed by the U.S. Army Installation and Restorations program."
Congressional debate on whether to withdraw the likely contaminated land from public use could come within months, he said.
"If necessary, the process for a withdrawal of BLM land could begin with the congressional budget process in January. It may be that a buffer zone around that portion of Dugway is essential to ensure public safety."
Owens, who has previously vigorously attacked the Army for secrecy about Dugway tests and their possible threat to Utahns, said, " `It's deja vu all over again,' as Yogi Berra would say, when we hear that discarded potentially dangerous munitions may be contained in BLM land.
"However, before the alarm bells are set off, it should be noted that sheep have grazed on virtually every foot of that land for the past 30 years without a reported incident. Rockhounds, hunters and hikers have also had access to the land."