The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has no plans to post warnings or fences around a vast, public area in the West Desert that Army studies say is likely contaminated with unexploded chemical, biologic or high-explosive munitions.
The reason: BLM officials say those studies only show such buried munitions are possible but give no conclusive proof they exist. Until more exact information is found, the BLM says it isn't sure it needs warnings - or how to best provide them in the immense 66-square-mile area south of Dugway Proving Ground."We just don't know what course of action (to take) because we don't know - nor does the Army - if there's really a problem out there," said Jerry Meredith, chief of public affairs for the Utah office of BLM.
"We have met (with the Army) and agreed that there's more work that must be done, that they've got to get out there and get more facts," he said.
While the Army admits it doesn't know exactly where or how many such weapons may exist in the large area, Dugway spokeswoman Kathleen Whitaker said the Army strongly feels that unexploded arms are buried on BLM land - and may be exposed through erosion, as happens often on the Dugway base.
In fact, she said unexploded munitions that were once buried but worked their way to the surface have twice been found on the BLM land, once in 1982 and once in 1984.
One incident, however, was within a small area that has been fenced and closed to the public. Don Banks, spokesman for the BLM Salt Lake regional office, said the BLM had not before heard about the other incident.
Whitaker said the Army is planning more studies to better assess contamination - with steps ranging from searching records for exact test sites to walking over areas with metal detectors. The Army is also performing surveys that could allow transferring control of the land from the BLM to the Army - something the BLM doesn't think is necessary yet.
Three months ago, the Deseret News obtained previously confidential Army reports through the Freedom of Information Act and reported that they say much land just south of Dugway was likely contaminated by old mutitions from tests - even though the areas are off the Dugway base.
The reports said the Army knew about such potential contamination at least since 1979. But it had not warned the public, and had not even informed the BLM about it. BLM officials learned about it by reading Deseret News stories.
To show what evidence the reports give that contamination exists, they said a search of records showed that the western third of the public land - called the Yellow Jacket area - had been a test area for "various unidentified chemical agents, fire bombs, rockets and smoke and mortar rounds during the 1940s and 1950s."
Rounds lying on the surface were removed, but buried weapons were still suspected - and could be exposed by erosion or other methods. The Army has contractors at Dugway who constantly search areas on base for such exposed, once-buried munitions.
The studies said records also showed that the western two-thirds of the BLM area, called part of the Southern Triangle, was used as a mortar and artillery range for chemical and conventional arms under permit with the BLM during the 1950s and 1960s.
But such information in the reports are not sufficient yet for the BLM to post signs or build fences.
Meredith said, "In that report, there are no specifics on the fact that there are indeed problems out there, just that there is a potential for them. Nor has anyone who operates out there with livestock . . . or the miners out there been able to substantiate that there is anything out there."
He added, "It's a little hard to do something until we know there's a problem. I mean, you just can't go out there and build this high fence around the area. If you build a standard fence and put up signs, people are going to go in anyway - a long history shows that. So to keep out people, you need to put up an expensive fence."
Meredith also said the Army, under federal law, is responsible for determining what contamination exists and to clean it. "We've told them we'll be cooperative in any way we can, and if the only way to get it taken care of is to withdraw it (from public use) and give it to them, then we'll cooperate with that. But at this point, we haven't seen any need for that."
Dugway spokeswoman Whitaker said in the past the Army had in earlier years asked the BLM to fence some of the area suspected of contamination. The BLM said it turned down those requests and said later it had not been warned of possible contamination there.
Since news of the contamination was made public, Whitaker said the Army has again discussed with BLM its desire to restrict public access into the area.