During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union raced to build vast stockpiles of doomsday weapons. One should think that having enough weaponry to destroy the world once over would be enough for any self respecting superpower, but the two countries didn’t stop there. From nuclear to biological to chemical weapons, collectively known today as weapons of mass destruction, neither side hesitated to explore a variety of ways to exterminate the other guy.
While luckily these stockpiles of WMDs were never used in anger, their development had horrendous side effects on people living near testing grounds. One of the stranger incidents of a weapons test gone awry occurred in Utah’s Skull Valley, situated near the Dugway Proving Ground, when the US Army inadvertently nerve gassed 6,000 sheep.
Deadly cloud in the aptly named Skull Valley
March 13, 1968. Workers at the Dugway Proving Grounds performed three tests involving VX, a deadly nerve agent with an oily consistency. A drop on the skin the size of a pinhead can kill a full grown adult in 15 minutes. The first test involved firing a single VX laden artillery shell. The second involved burning 160 gallons of the nerve agent in an open pit. It is the third test, however, that has gone on to become infamous. This test involved a low-flying F-4E Phantom jet dumping VX on an empty test area 27 miles from Skull Valley. The jet performed its mission, but something went wrong with the spraying apparatus used in the test. It continued to leak the deadly agent as the pilot guided his plane over Skull Valley.
One terrifying feature of VX is how it persists in the environment. Due to its oily consistency, it clings to vegetation and can do so for days. In this case, the VX coated the grass and snow covering Skull Valley. Sheep living in the valley ate the contaminated grass and snow, and by March 14 some 6000 of them were dead. The Army of course denied responsibility for their deaths, but tests conducted on blood and tissue samples from the carcasses showed traces of VX in their systems. Tests conducted in 1972 at Edgewood Arsenal showed that sheep fed grass contaminated with VX exhibited the same symptoms as the sheep in Skull Valley.
However, sheep were not the only victims of the mishap in Skull Valley. Ray Peck and his family lived in the valley during the incident. Peck himself was outside working when the jet streaked overhead. He developed an earache before the end of the day. The next morning, before discovering the dead sheep, he thought the new fallen snow was so pretty that he decided to eat a handful of it (…does that seem like an odd reaction to anyone else, by the way?)
Imagine his fright when he found the dead and dying animals. Worse, imagine how he and his family felt when Army helicopters descended from the sky and officers, doctors, and soldiers swarmed his property. The doctors obtained blood samples from all of the Peck family members. Not long after the incident, Peck and his family began to suffer from terrible headaches. Ray Peck reported headaches in addition to bouts of numbness, paranoia, and burning pains in his legs. The family also suffered fertility problems after the incident, including an unusually high number of miscarriages.
The Pecks were not the only human casualties of the accident. Leaders of the Skull Valley Band of Goshute reported that older members of the tribe died not long after the leak. No investigation was made to find the source of these deaths, but tribal members believe there may be a link to the VX leak.
Despite all the time that has passed since the Army inadvertently killed 6000 sheep and injured an unknown number of people, it has never once acknowledged its responsibility for the incident. While a 1970 report showing that VX from Dugway was responsible for the deaths was declassified in 1978, it did not come to the public’s attention until 1998. These and other reports were not followed up on by the Army, but rather were filed away and left to gather dust.
While the Army never took responsibility, the government did offer compensation to ranchers who lost their sheep, a paltry sum of $1 million. If anything positive came out of the mess, it was that the media reporting on the case was a factor in Nixon’s decision in 1969 to ban all open air testing of chemical weapons.
Small consolation for the people of Skull Valley, who have to live with the results of the leak to this day.
Davidson, Lee and Bauman, Joe.”Toxic Utah: A land littered by poisons.” DeseretNews.com. February 28 2001. Deseret News. Acessed January 19, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/250010322/Toxic-Utah-A-land-littered-with-poisons.html?pg=all
Norell, Brenda. “Skull Valley’s Nerve Gas Neighbors.” Indian Country Today. 25 October 2005.Accessed 19 January 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/285387/skull_valleys_nerve_gas_neighbors/
Woolf, Jim. “U.S. Nerve Gas Leak ’68.” Salt Lake Tribune. January 2, 1998. Accessed January 19, 2014. Retrieved from: http://lists.jammed.com/IWAR/1998/01/0004.html