The U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland through the years helped test and develop chemical weapons - as did the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

But Aberdeen, according to Maryland inspectors, violated environmental protection laws, including not obtaining proper permits, and improperly storing and handling toxic substances. Ditto at Dugway, says the Utah Health Department.Some of the toxic substances at Aberdeen escaped and contaminated public land. The same happened at Dugway.

But at Aberdeen, three engineers - including William Dee, the creator of the "binary" chemical weapon - are facing criminal charges in Baltimore federal court for ignoring environmental protection laws.

If Dee, Carl Gepp and Robert Lentz - engineers who oversaw Aberdeen's Pilot Plant where chemical systems were tested - lose their case, they could go to prison.

It would also set a devastating precedent for other government employees, such as those at Dugway - which seems to have a mirror-image history of Aberdeen's environmental problems.

In private industry, the company - not the individual - is most often held responsible for breaking environmental laws, and a corporation is punished by fines.

However, the Army is legally immune from prosecution for its actions at Aberdeen, and it has even been prohibited from paying for any of the legal costs for the three engineers.

According to the Washington Post, the three engineers expect to pay $65,000 in legal fees each. That forced Gepp to refinance his house, Lentz to cancel long plans for a second-honeymoon to Hawaii, and Dee to deplete his family's savings.

The charges against the Aberdeen trio are familiar to those who have followed environmental controversies at Dugway.

They are charged with, among other things, ignoring environmental protection laws from 1983 to 1986, keeping dozens of cancer-causing chemicals in unauthorized storage areas, dumping some down drains without authorization and discharging acid into a creek - which caused a fish kill.

Problems at Dugway reported in the Deseret News during the past year include:

- State officials said Dugway had violated environmental laws for the past eight years by conducting open burning and detonation of hazardous wastes without proper permits and disposal plans. It also did not obtain permits for some hazardous wastes stored in canisters, and did not have permits for storing residues from nerve and mustard agent testing.

Last August, Dugway officials promised to comply with such environmental laws from now on. In exchange, the state agreed not to pursue charges against Dugway, which could have brought a $10,000 fine for each day of violation.

- Documents obtained by the Deseret News through the Freedom of Information Act disclosed that Dugway has likely contaminated a 66-square-mile area of public land in Utah's West Desert with unexploded arms containing chemicals or explosives.

Even though Army officials knew about that since at least 1979, they did not post any signs or otherwise warn the public. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management - which manages the contaminated area - said it did not know about the contamination until it was told by the Deseret News.

- More documents obtained by the Deseret News showed Dugway itself, and some land adjacent to it, has 124 identified potential hazardous waste sites harboring everything from drums of lethal nerve agent to old radioactive refuse.

Documents showed the Army is concerned that toxic wastes might pollute wells for the base's drinking water, or cause death or injury if they are disturbed. Construction crews have on occasion dug up long-forgotten arms and wastes, putting several people in the hospital.

The whole situation should give this red-light warning to any government employee working with hazardous substances: Know and comply with environmental laws or you personally may be criminally charged for violating them.

That won't solve the contamination problems of the past, but may help prevent more in the future.