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Sarin Unaccounted For At U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground

A new internal US Army investigation found that the most deadly chemical and biological agents known to man were improperly handled and tracked at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground. Dugway was the focus of international headlines in a 2015 investigation which found that "egregious safety failures" over the period of a decade resulted in the shipping of live anthrax spores to 194 laboratories located in 50 states and nine foreign countries via commercial shipping companies like FedEx. At the time of the 2015 scandal, over two dozen personnel at Dugway were treated for potential anthrax exposure, and an Army review board disciplined ten civilian and military overseers, which included "career-killing" reprimands of the base commander, Brig. Gen. William King.

As reported by the Army Times, the latest investigation conducted by the DoD Inspector General (IG), specifically identified failed protocols and oversight while tracking inventories of sarin nerve agent. Sarin is deadly in extremely small amounts and even at low concentrations. Dugway also handles and tests other well-known nerve agents like VX. The Pentagon has described facilities like Dugway as ground zero for the “high-risk, zero-defects world of biological select agents program."

The Salt Lake City facility has been rife with accidents and failures in protocol over recent years. A 2011 incident involving a misplaced vial of less than 1 milliliter of VX (or less than a quarter-teaspoon) sent the 800,000 acre base into complete lockdown. The crisis was resolved when the VX vial was found to have been mislabeled.


Anthrax growing in a lab dish. Source: AgriLife Today/Flickr

The new 2017 report entitled, The Army Needs to Improve Controls Over Chemical Surety Materials, included specifics on the alarming recent case which involved missing sarin. According to the Army Times:

Additionally, Dugway officials did not “immediately notify the chemical materials accountability officer” of a 1.5 milliliter shortage of sarin discovered during an April 19, 2016, inventory. That amount is enough to cause death within minutes, according to the CDC.

The report further identified routine use of insufficient containers for deadly agents, primarily by contractors, which contradicts Army protocol for storage and handling. Tracking chain of custody is essential in accounting for theft, leaks, or natural evaporation, but one authorized contractor was found to be using plastic containers with resealable tape instead of the standard stainless steel cylinders with tamper-resistant seals. According to the IG report, this "provides no assurance that only authorized personnel had access to chemical surety materials." The report concludes of chain of custody protocols that,

By not fully implementing the Army’s accountability controls and not having adequate oversight and guidance, the Army is at increased risk that chemical surety materials are not properly stored and accounted for at Dugway and the contractor.


Dugway Proving Ground. Source: Global Security

Looming in the background is the 2001 anthrax bio-terror attack, which began a mere seven days after 9/11. In the ensuing months a total of five people died after exposure to anthrax spores which had been mailed to US media and Senate offices. The FBI systematically focused its field investigation on US military labs because of the likelihood that such an advanced bio-weapon could only be procured in a government lab.

The eight-year final FBI investigation implicated Army scientist Bruce E. Ivins who worked at the Fort Detrick bio-defense lab in Maryland (he committed suicide in 2008). But subsequent studies, including a 2011 study produced by the National Academy of Sciences and a 2014 investigation by the Government Accountability Office cast severe doubts on the FBI's findings, and culpability has remained the subject of debate and scrutiny.

Disturbingly, the string of mishaps and carelessness which saw live anthrax mailed by FedEx all across the country and other parts of the world (even reaching South Korea and Australia) which marked Dugway's prior scandal occurred significantly after the 2001 attacks. The fact that the DoD's new report still finds continuing significant problems at Dugway involving nearly indetectable lethal chemical and biological agents going unaccounted for should be cause for growing alarm, but the latest findings have still gone largely unreported in national media.