It was half past midnight on March 17th, 1968. Keith Smart, the director of epidemiology and ecology at Utah’s Dugway Proving Grounds, was awakened by the ringing of a phone. On the other end was Dr. Bode, a professor at the University of Utah, and the director of the school’s contract with Dugway. There was a problem. Calls had been coming in. About 27 miles outside of the base, in the aptly-named Skull Valley, thousands of sheep had suddenly died. There were some survivors among the flocks, but it was clear that their hours were numbered. Veterinarians were dispatched to euthanize the few remaining animals.

Army officials began drafting their official denial. A few days earlier, one of their planes had flown high over the Utah desert at Dugway with a bellyful of nerve agent. The plane’s mission was simple: using a specially rigged delivery system, it was to fly to a specific set of coordinates and spray its payload over a remote section of the Utah desert. This test was a small part of the ongoing chemical and biological weapons research at Dugway, and it was one of three tests held that particular day. The flight would soon prove to be far more important than anyone could have guessed at the time.

The sprawling 800,000 acres of Dugway Proving Ground is a mix of target ranges, dispersal grounds, laboratories, and military bunkers. The facility was established in the 1940s to provide the military with a remote locale to conduct safer testing. It was briefly shut down following World War 2, but the base enjoyed a grand reopening during the Korean War. By 1958, it was the official home of the Army Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Weapons School. The base tested all manner of unconventional military hardware; from researching new toxic agents to developing antidotes and protective clothing.

In March 1968, the toxin under scrutiny was VX, one of the most potent nerve agents in existence. The original compound was created by Ranajit Ghosh, a chemist working at Imperial Chemical Industries. The liquid proved to be an effective pesticide and it was quickly put on the market under the name Amiton. Not long afterwards, however, it was taken off the market for being too toxic to handle safely. The agent’s extreme toxicity drew the attention of government weapons research labs, whose scientists were always on the lookout for more efficient ways to kill people. Amiton, the pesticide too successful for its own good, was to become the “V” class of nerve agent. The majority of the research done on V-Class agents went into developing a potent weapons-grade version of the chemical. That research birthed VX.

A Target Epicenter at Dugway (Credit: CLUI)
A Target Epicenter at Dugway (Credit: CLUI)

VX was a triumph among the biological warfare community. Odorless and tasteless, it’s three times as toxic as Sarin. In initial trials, this over-achieving compound was also found to be highly stable, enabling long shelf life and environmental persistence. VX works by blocking chemicals in the victim’s body from functioning. It prevents the enzyme acetylcholinesterase from allowing muscles to relax, resulting in the contraction of every muscle in the body. Exposure to a minute or diluted dose of VX will cause muscle twitching, drooling, excessive sweating, and involuntary defecation, among other unpleasantries. Exposure to a lethal dose ⁠— about ten milligrams ⁠— will cause convulsions, paralysis, and eventually asphyxiation due to sustained contraction of the diaphragm muscle. Unless the affected skin is cleaned and an antidote is administered immediately, a single drop of liquid VX will kill a person in around ten minutes.

On March 13th, Dugway ran a series of three tests using VX. The tests were routine, like any of the thousands of weapons tests that were conducted there over the previous twenty years. In the first test, an artillery shell packed with VX was fired onto the range; and in the second, 160 gallons of the compound were burned in an open pit. Both tests were completed without incident. The third test involved delivery via airplane, with over a ton of a special VX mixture sprayed over the desert. Unbeknownst to the pilot, the spray nozzle that controlled the flow of the chemical had broken. As he climbed to a higher altitude, the chemical continued to seep from the plane. Winds that day were blowing between 5-20 mph, with gusts reaching 35 mph. These strong easterly winds carried the VX straight to Skull Valley. The next day, the sheep grazing in the area began to die, and within days thousands of them had perished. The government and local numbers differ, but anywhere between 3,483 and 6,400 sheep died in the aftermath of the test.

Skull Valley resident Ray Peck was working in his yard the evening after the tests, but retired early after developing an earache. The next morning the ground outside his home was littered with dead birds, and he watched as a dying rabbit struggled in the distance. A helicopter touched down soon after and unleashed its cargo of equipment and scientists upon the confused family. They quickly collected wildlife carcasses, performed blood tests on the Pecks, and departed. Though they suffered no fatalities from their exposure, the family complained of numerous ailments in the years following the tests. Ray Peck said he began suffering from violent headaches, numbness and paranoia. His daughters ⁠— children at the time of the incident ⁠— experienced an unusually high rate of miscarriage in their adult years. While there’s no way of definitively knowing what caused the problems, the Pecks believe their exposure to VX is the cause of their many health problems.

The Army was characteristically roundabout in their comments on the incident. They admitted to having tested a chemical in that immediate time period. They even made mention that the plane carrying the VX may have malfunctioned. However, they assured the public that the massive, unexplained die-off could not possibly have been caused by the ton of VX dropped less than 30 miles from Skull Valley. Despite their assurances that they were innocent of any wrongdoing, the Army ultimately chose to pay the ranchers for their losses and bury the animals on base property.

Satellite Image of Dugway Proving Grounds
Satellite Image of Dugway Proving Grounds

The Army worked furiously to stuff all of the worms back into the Dugway can, but the damage was already done. The Dugway Sheep Kill received widespread attention both at home and abroad. The outrage over the incident was intensified just a year later when the US media was tipped off to the existence of CHASE. The Cut Holes And Sink ‘Em program was the Army’s plan for discreetly disposing of dangerous surplus materials. It involved the scuttling of ships loaded with the deadly cargo up to 250 miles offshore. Unfortunately for the US Army’s PR department, some of the materials involved were mustard gas, Sarin, and VX. Apparently a good many people had serious misgivings about dumping dangerous chemicals into the ocean. These concerns were further reinforced by the fact that the Army itself wasn’t sure whether or not the metal and concrete slabs that housed the chemicals would survive the massive pressure during their 16,000 foot descent to the ocean floor.

In 1974 the US Senate ratified the international Biological Weapons Convention which prohibited the use of toxin-based weapons such as VX. Less than two years later, on July 4th, 1976, the base was again in the news; this time after 20 wild horses were found dead. The horses had died where they stood, many with open oozing sores and ashen mucous membranes. Scott Baranowski, a soldier on duty that day, was the first to arrive. He also took part in the investigation and burial of the sick and dying horses. Within days, fifty of the animals had died, and Baranowski found himself bedridden with a high fever, severe joint pain, and headaches.

The government’s internal testing on the carcasses came up negative for all known chemical nerve agents. The Army refused to officially admit fault for the deaths and ultimately attributed them to dehydration. The official report states that the animals were confused by a recent relocation of a watering hole and had died before discovering the new one ⁠— a phenomenon that was later observed in some populations of wild horses. The Bureau of Land Management rejected this explanation, citing that some of the horses had died within a few yards of the new water source, and that all of them had died in a relatively short amount of time. Since the horses were wild, there were no legal damages to be claimed or paid, so the Army’s explanation was reluctantly accepted. As for Scott Baranowski, he reports that he has suffered chronic health issues since that early July day. Attempts to obtain his medical records from that time have met with little success. Baranowski has been told they “don’t exist.”

Some of Ray Peck's dead sheep. (Credit: Deseret News)
Some of Ray Peck's dead sheep. (Credit: Deseret News)

While the Dugway incidents cannot take all the credit, they certainly contributed to the volatile politics of the late 1960s and early 70s. The American public had grown weary of the Vietnam war, and the Army’s dangerous tests and reckless disposal of deadly chemicals were too much for many people to accept. Animals had been dying for decades to help improve the technology of warmaking, but the casualties of Dugway and CHASE actually managed to impede military progress: In response to public protests over these incidents, President Nixon disbanded the Army Chemical Corp, and took action to ratify the Geneva Protocol to prohibit chemical weapons in war.

In 1998, the government’s report on federal and state studies from the incident twenty thirty years earlier was made public. The findings showed that the levels of VX were “sufficient to account for the death of the sheep.” Even in the face of this evidence, the Army has failed to take official responsibility for the debacle.