Col. Jan Van Prooyen becomes the new commander of Dugway Proving Ground this week in the middle of a hot-again controversy about the safety of the Army's chemical and biologic testing there.
The concern has smoldered and flared for decades, fueled by true horror stories such as a 1969 nerve gas accident that killed 6,000 sheep, a construction accident where workers were gassed when they dug up long-forgotten arms and by a new proposal for a lab to make aerosols out of the deadliest germs on earth to test gas masks and other equipment.Utahns are also wary because of the shroud of secrecy that the Army has historically draped over operations at the vast Dugway grounds - which are larger than Rhode Island. And every time the Army released reports telling the public not to fear anyway, some well-respected group claims the opposite.
That happened again just last month.
That's when the Army released a draft environmental impact statement on its biologic defense research program. It said even the worst disasters it could imagine with germs at Dugway and its new proposed aerosol lab would pose no threat to those living off the base.
But the day before that Army report was released, the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management released a scathing report saying the Army's security and safety at facilities such as Dugway are far too lax.
So wary Utahns don't know whom to trust - the Army or its critics, which now even include a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate.
The best way for the Army to fight such fear of the unknown is with the truth, with knowledge. With Van Prooyen's new appointment, it is a golden opportunity for the Army to rend its veil of secrecy, open its files and let the press and public see exactly what has and has not happened at Dugway.
The Army recently started some steps in that direction. It admitted it doesn't know where many biologic and chemical arms were buried during the early years of the proving ground, but has contractors constantly searching for canisters exposed by erosion. And it provided lists of open-air biologic tests conducted in the past 10 years. But information about other tests requested by the press and members of the public has been slow in coming.
When the public is finally told all that has happened at Dugway, a period of controversy and change may follow - depending on what is shown. But the controversy would then end, and the Army could proceed without constantly being on the defensive.
Until such openness comes, the controversy will smolder then flare every time a new program proposal comes or the press pries out a new tidbit of information. Utah may find it difficult to long support the Army and Dugway unless a better basis of trust is built through more openness.