How a nervous agent killed sheep and transformed the law in the United States
In 1942, the US military established the Dugway Proving Ground (DPG) in the desert of western Utah, located 137 km southwest of Salt Lake City. It was adjacent to the Utah Test and Training Range, a weapons development and testing facility, and together the two sites form the largest land-based special-use airspace in the United States.
Dugway’s purpose was to test biological and chemical weapons, antidotes to those weapons, toxic agents, chemical spray systems, and protective clothing. Dugway also tested flamethrowers and firebombing techniques.
In 1958, the US military moved its chemical, biological, and radiological weapons school to Dugway Proving Grounds. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, tests for diseases spread by armed mosquitoes were conducted at the site.
During the 1960s, it was reported that nearly half a million pounds (230,000 kg) of nerve agents were dispersed during outdoor tests at Dugway, along with 328 outdoor tests from biological weapons and 74 dirty bomb tests.
One of the nerve agents tested at Dugway was “VX”, which is short for “poisonous agent X”. VX is an extremely toxic nerve agent that was first formulated in the 1950s by a chemist working for Imperial Chemical Industries and tested at the super-secret Porton Down site in England, home of the Department of Defense’s Defense Science and Technology Lab.
Exposure to just 10 milligrams of VX by absorption through the skin, or 25 to 30 mg by inhalation, is enough to kill a human, making VX more potent than its cousin Sarin. When exposed, VX disrupts the body’s signaling mechanism by blocking an enzyme that allows glands and muscles to relax, causing uncontrollable muscle contraction and possibly preventing a victim from breathing.
The VX is classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations and its use is prohibited under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, but that has not stopped its use. On February 13, 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jon-un, was attacked with VX at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia.
A rag soaked in VX was placed over Kim Jong-nam’s face and it was sprayed in the face by two women, one Vietnamese and the other Indonesian. Although she was rushed to hospital and treated aggressively, Kim died. While in custody, the two women explained that they believed it was a televised prank, and one served no jail time while the other only served one. months before being released.
The Dugway Sheep Incident
On March 13, 1968, an A-4 Skyhawk attack aircraft with two TMU-28B spray tanks flew over the Dugway Proving Ground to test the aerial dispersion of the VX. Each tank contained 160 gallons of nerve agent and unfortunately just after the “bombardment” one of the aerosol nozzles in the tank accidentally malfunctioned. releasing a small amount of the agent at a much higher altitude, allowing a small stream of VX to be blown away from the testing grounds.
The nerve agent drifted into nearby Skull Valley, a farming community just north of Dugway Proving Ground. There, thousands of sheep grazed contentedly on the grass, until they were no more.
On the morning of March 14, 1968, Tooele County Sheriff Fay Gillette received a call from a rancher telling him to come quickly. What Gillette saw next was carnage, “Sheep lying all over the place. All down – stains of white as far as the eye can see.”
On March 17, 1968, Keith Smart, head of Dugway’s Ecology and Epidemiology Department, was woken up at 12:30 a.m. by a call telling him that more than 6,000 sheep lay dead in Skull Valley. Dugway immediately denied testing chemical weapons, however, this claim was contradicted on March 21, 1968, when Utah Senator Frank Moss released a Pentagon report describing the spraying of 320 gallons of VX on March 13.
These sheep that were not killed instantly were, according to the newspaper Science, “to act in general[ing] dizzy, [with] their heads bowed down and to the side, walk[ing] in a stilted and uncoordinated way, ”before they too died. The sheep’s symptoms were exactly the same as those caused by the VX nerve gas poisoning.
Atlanta’s National Communicable Disease Center tested water and grass from the Skull Valley area, as well as blood and liver from dead sheep. Their tests “prove[ed] no doubt … “that the deaths were caused by the military nerve agent.
Quietly, the military paid the rancher, Alvin Hatch, $ 376,685, whose sheep accounted for 90% of those killed. They also sent bulldozers to the Hatch ranch to help with the mass burial of the sheep.
In February 1969, NBC television broadcast a documentary on the Dugway sheep incident, and a New York congressman named Richard McCarthy saw it. McCarthy was shocked, believing that chemical weapons had long been banned by an international agreement.
A big flaw
During World War I, all major combatants used chemical weapons, with horrific effect. Over a million soldiers have been gassed and over 90,000 have died. As a result of “The Great War” in 1925, 38 countries signed the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous, or Other Gases and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, which is known as name of the Geneva Protocol due to the location of its signature. As of April 2021, 146 States have ratified, acceded to or succeeded to the Protocol.
The treaty prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons in international armed conflict. It was signed on June 17, 1925 and entered into force on February 8, 1928. It prohibits the use of “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all similar liquids, materials or devices” and “bacteriological methods of warfare”.
But, there was a loophole: Although the United States signed the Geneva Protocol in 1925, it did not ratify the agreement until April 10, 1975, when the United States Congress finally approved the Protocol and it was proclaimed by President Gerald Ford. In addition, the protocol has nothing to say about the production, stockpiling or transfer of chemical and biological weapons. Subsequent treaties which covered these aspects – the Biological Weapons Convention and the The Chemical Weapons Convention was not signed until 1972 and 1993. This left the United States free to increase its production and testing of chemical weapons, especially between 1961 and 1969.
So many chemical weapons have been created that their elimination has become a problem, which has been solved, in part, by dumping hundreds of thousands of tonnes of chemicals into the ocean. Worse yet, there were few official records showing how many and where the guns had been thrown.
For the chemical weapons that were stored on land, it was discovered that many of their containers were leaking, including 21,000 clusters of chemical bombs that were leaking from the Rocky Mountain arsenal in Denver.
In May 1969, Senator McCarthy, alerted to news of the slaughter of the Dugway sheep, began Congressional hearings on the US chemical weapons program. These hearings revealed that the program responsible for the elimination of chemical weapons in the United States is called CHASE. It meant “Cut Holes [in the containers] And sink them. “
In July 1969, just two months after Senator McCarthy’s hearings, 24 people at the US military base in Okinawa fell ill after being exposed to nerve gas that leaked from its container through a small leak. Press attention eventually forced the Pentagon to admit that in addition to Okinawa and Dugway, outdoor tests for the nerve agents Tabun, Sarin, Soman, VX and mustard gas had been conducted at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, and Fort McClellan, Alabama.
Neurotoxic agents still in use
As we have already written, on March 4, 2018, a former Russian military officer and double agent named Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found collapsed on a bench outside a restaurant in Salisbury, England. When Police Officer Nick Bailey visited the Skripals to investigate, he too fell ill.
Eventually, it was determined that the Skripals and Bailey were suffering from the effects of the nerve agent Novichok, and it was alleged that two agents from the Russian intelligence service GRU had sneaked into the UK to carry out the attack, then had escaped again. They had transported the Novichok in a well-known brand perfume bottle and, following the attack, they dumped the bottle in a dumpster in the nearby town of Amesbury.
When Charlie Rowley, a resident of Amesbury, went diving in a dumpster, looking for something sweet to give his girlfriend Dawn Sturgess, he was delighted to offer the perfume, which he gifted to Sturgess, who sprayed it on herself. Rowley survived, but Sturgess was unlucky, leaving behind a young girl.
It is also generally believed that in February 2018, chlorine gas was used in two Syrian cities, Saraqueb in Idlib and Douma in Eastern Ghouta. Previous chemical attacks by the Syrian government against its people have also been alleged.
The Dugway Sheep Incident was portrayed in the 1972 film, Rage, with and directed by George C. Scott. Author Stephen King drew inspiration from the incident for his 1978 novel, The stall.