After 20 years of fighting about how to handle contamination from once-secret arms tests on lands just outside of Dugway Proving Ground, the Army says a new study has found that none of that contamination is actually dangerous.
"The probability that you will walk out of this building and get hit by a car in the parking lot is higher" than anyone being hurt by any old munitions in the "Yellow Jacket" area of the Dugway Mountains, said Jerry Vincent, manager of the Formerly Used Defense Site Program for the Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District.
He said contamination there now is just old scrap metal from spent rockets, bombs, artillery shells and other munitions with no intact explosives or chemical agents found. They come from World War II tests that used mines there for research on how to attack cave defenses used by Japanese soldiers.
So the Army is proposing to leave that scrap metal there, and declare the area as having received a "remedy in place" and to be as safe as humanly possible for mining and other activities.
Area mine owners, state and federal environmental regulators and federal land managers who met with Army representatives last week at the Utah Department of Health are taking the proposal under advisement, along with Army questions about whether also to inspect inside old mines there for possible munitions.
One with concerns is Louise Cannon, who with two siblings inherited gold mines and land their grandfather had purchased in the area only to find out later it had been bombarded in World War II with thousands of rounds of chemical and conventional arms. That scared off some who were interested in leasing the claims.
Public word of the tests first came in 1988 when the Deseret News obtained Army documents that suspected lands in the area were heavily contaminated.
The Cannons pursued two federal lawsuits (one is still before an appeals court) seeking to force the Army to either buy or clean up the land and complained they could not sell it or mine it until one action or the other occurred.
She said at the meeting the proposed "remedy in place" may not be enough to convince any mine companies interested in using her family's claims that it is safe. "They are going to have problems insuring their people, and even wanting to go on the property," she said.
But Vincent said having a one-in-a-million to one-in-a-billion chance of problem from some undiscovered, unexploded ordnance "is nothing compared to their potential for somebody (suffering a) snake bite, broken leg, falling down a mine shaft" and those other potential hazards would be of more concern to insurance companies.
Vincent said contractors for the Army walked the ground extensively last fall in search patterns seeking unexploded ordnance from the old tests. He said that unlike previous studies in the area, they had access to documents once classified as secret that described in great detail where tests occurred and what ordnance was used.
Vincent said metal scraps from old ordnance littered those areas. But no intact munitions were found, nor any dangerous explosives or chemical agents. He said giving 100 percent proof that nothing dangerous exists there is impossible, but said actual chances of anything dangerous there are "slim" and "remote."
He said the area has hard rock under only a couple of inches of loose soil, so it is nearly impossible for munitions to be embedded in deep ground and most munition pieces found were easily visible laying on top of the ground.
Vincent said the Army would have liked to pick up and dispose the munitions scrap that it found, but the U.S. Bureau of Land Management would not give it permission to remove anything from the area.
Vincent said the Army has not yet looked inside mines for potential munitions. But it found in documents that none of the animals placed in mines during tests, in attempts to kill them with arms, were harmed, except one goat that was singed by an incendiary bomb. So he doubts anything dangerous is in the mines now.
He asked mine owners, land managers and regulators to consider whether the Army really needs to go through the expense of inspecting inside the old mines.
Cannon said she is sorry her grandfather ever gave the Army permission to use the land for tests, which she and siblings said they never knew until a contract was found during their lawsuits.
E-mail: [email protected]