Skull Valley’s Nerve Gas Neighbors

By Brenda Norrell, Indian Country Today, Oneida, N.Y.

Oct. 26–SKULL VALLEY GOSHUTE NATION, Utah — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved a license for a nuclear storage facility on Skull Valley Goshute tribal land, prompting new questions about the federal government’s use of the area as a U.S. Army test site for biological and chemical weapons, including nerve gas and anthrax.

Margene Bullcreek, Skull Valley Goshute tribal member and among those protesting nuclear and toxic dumping on Indian lands, said it is time for the government to stop dumping its nuclear waste on Indian people and stop treating them as if they are expendable.

“There is no gain to our prosperity when there is poison spilled. The radioactive waste would bring harm to our medicine wheel in four areas: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual,” said Bullcreek, founder of the community group Ohngo Gaudadeh Devia Awareness.

The Goshute group, along with the state of Utah, is opposing the Private Fuel Storage Limited Liability Consortium’s current plan to store more than half of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste on 17,444 acres of tribal land.

Goshutes, whose native language is Shoshone, are protesting the proposed nuclear dump now referred to as “Utah’s Yucca Mountain,” after the proposed high-level nuclear waste repository in southern Nevada. Meanwhile, Western Shoshone in Nevada continue to oppose the Yucca Mountain nuclear dump on ancestral lands.

“Indigenous people within this nation have always been victimized to provide national security,” said Bullcreek, criticizing the BIA’s approval of the nuclear waste dump of Goshute land.

Already, Goshutes have been unwilling neighbors of the U.S. Army’s biological and chemical weapon open-air testing at the Dugway Proving Ground in western Utah.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recognizes the risks those weapons pose to Dugway’s neighbors, the Skull Valley Goshute.

On its Web site, FEMA quotes from Jicarilla Apache researcher Veronica Tiller’s “Guide to Indian Country”:

“South of the reservation is the Dugway Proving Grounds, where chemical and biological weapons have been developed and tested by the government. In 1968, chemical agents escaped from Dugway, killing approximately 6,000 sheep and other animals on the reservation; the government buried at least 1,600 of the contaminated sheep on the reservation. —

“East of Skull Valley, in the Rush Valley area, is a government nerve-gas storage facility. Northwest is the Envirocare Low-Level Radioactive disposal site. North of the reservation is a large magnesium production plant, which has been identified by the Environment Protection Agency as the most polluting plant of its kind in the U.S.”

Referring to the proposed nuclear dump, the FEMA site states that flash flooding and earthquakes along the Wasatch fault pose additional risks.

The operations at Dugway Proving Ground were classified for most of the 20th century. In March 1968, following a VX nerve agent experiment, 6,000 sheep died in Skull Valley and Rush Valley.

“Agent VX was found to be present in snow and grass samples that were received approximately three weeks after the sheep incident,” said the 1970 report by researchers at the Army’s Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, as revealed by the Salt Lake Tribune in 1998.

The document was declassified in 1978, but not until 30 years after the deaths of the sheep did it become public. Still, the commander of Dugway said the Army does not accept responsibility for the death of the sheep or admit negligence.

VX, which was found in the bodies of the dead sheep, is a nerve agent so powerful that a single drop on the skin can result in death within about 15 minutes. It disrupts the nervous system and causes breathing to stop. GB, another common form of nerve agent known also as sarin, vaporizes quickly when exposed to air and forms a deadly gas.

International publicity about the incident contributed to President Nixon’s decision to ban all open-air testing of chemical weapons in 1969.

Meanwhile, Goshute tribal leaders often question whether the deaths of several tribal elders, who died shortly after the sheep, were the result of the nerve gas accident.

At the time, in 1968, Dugway conducted aerial nerve gas testing. In one of its experiments, VX was sprayed from a jet to a ground target 27 miles west of Skull Valley. At the time of the accident, when the nerve agent escaped the target area, any animals or people who ate the grass or snow would have become contaminated.

Besides the sheep deaths in 1968, there were at least 1,174 other tests of chemical agents at Dugway, which spread nearly a half million pounds of nerve agent to the winds, according to documents revealed by Deseret News in Utah. There were 328 open-air germ warfare tests; 74 radiological “dirty bomb” tests and the equivalent of eight intentional meltdowns of small nuclear reactors.

Along with biological and chemical testing at Dugway, open-air nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s and 1960s sent radioactive fallout drifting into Utah.

Currently, Dugway is in the market for mass quantities of anthrax, according to contract requests discovered by the Sunshine Project, a U.S.-German organization that opposes the use of biological and chemical weapons.

New Scientist magazine reported that the controversial move is likely to raise questions over the United States’ commitment to treaties designed to limit the spread of biological weapons, pointing out that even though the nation renounced biological weapons in 1969, Dugway was still producing quantities of lethal anthrax as recently as 1998.

The Dugway contract request is for companies to bid for the production of bulk quantities of a non-virulent strain of anthrax and equipment to produce significant volumes of other biological agents.

Besides contracts for anthrax, other contracts are for equipment to produce an unspecified biological agent and sheep carcasses to test the efficiency of an incinerator for the disposal of infected livestock.


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Copyright (c) 2005, Indian Country Today, Oneida, N.Y.

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