How a Nerve Agent Killed Thousands of Sheep and Transformed Weapons Law in the US

In 1968, the nerve agent VX escaped from the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah and killed over 6,000 sheep, but luckily, no humans.
Marcia Wendorf
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In 1942, the U.S. Army created the Dugway Proving Ground (DPG) in Utah's west desert, located 85 miles (137 k) southwest of Salt Lake City. It sat adjacent to the Utah Test and Training Range, a weapons development and testing facility, and together, the two sites form the largest overland special use airspace in the U.S. 

Utah's Dugway Proving Ground
Utah's Dugway Proving Ground Source: David Staplegunther/Wikimedia Commons

Dugway's purpose was to test biological and chemical weapons, antidotes to those weapons, toxic agents, systems for spraying chemicals, and protective clothing. Dugway also tested flamethrowers and fire-bombing techniques. 

In 1958, the U.S. Army moved its Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Weapons School to Dugway Proving Grounds. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, tests of weaponized mosquito-spread diseases were conducted at the site.

During the 1960s, it has been reported that almost half a million pounds (230,000 kg) of nerve agents were dispersed in open-air tests at Dugway, along with 328 open-air tests of biological weapons, and 74 tests of dirty bombs.

Meet "VX"

One of the nerve agents that was tested at Dugway was "VX", which is short for "venomous agent X." VX is an extremely toxic nerve agent that was first formulated during the 1950s by a chemist working for Imperial Chemical Industries and tested at England's super-secret Porton Down site, the location of the Ministry of Defence's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

Exposure to only 10 milligrams of VX via absorption through the skin, or 25 to 30 mg if inhaled, is enough to kill a human, making VX more potent than its cousin Sarin. Once exposed, VX disrupts the body's signaling mechanism by blocking an enzyme that allows glands and muscles to relaxcausing muscles to clench uncontrollably and, eventually, prevent a victim from being able to breathe. 

VX is categorized as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations, and it is banned from use under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, but that hasn't stopped its use. On February 13, 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jon-un, was attacked with VX at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, in Malaysia.

A cloth soaked with VX was placed over Kim Jong-nam's face and he was sprayed in the face by two women, one Vietnamese and the other Indonesian. Despite being rushed to the hospital and aggressively treated, Kim died. When detained, the two women explained that they thought it had been a TV prank, and one served no jail time while the other served just one month 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 testing the aerial dispersion of VX. Each tank held 160 gallons of the nerve agent and, unfortunately, just after the "bombing run", one of the tank's aerosol nozzles malfunctioned, accidentally releasing a small amount of the agent at a much higher altitude, allowing a small stream of VX to be blown far from the testing grounds.

The nerve agent drifted into the neighboring Skull Valley, a farming community located just north of the Dugway Proving Ground. There, thousands of sheep were contentedly grazing on grass, until they weren't.

Skull Valley sheep
Skull Valley sheep Source: Deseret News/Wikimedia Commons

On the morning of March 14, 1968, the Tooele County Sheriff, Fay Gillette, received a call from a rancher telling him to come quick. What Gillette saw next was carnage, "Sheep laying all over. All of them down — patches of white as far as you could see."

Farmer and Skull Valley sheep
Farmer and Skull Valley sheep Source: Challengeur/Flickr

On March 17, 1968, Keith Smart, chief of the Ecology and Epidemiology Department at Dugway was awakened at 12:30 a.m. by a call telling him over 6,000 sheep were lying dead in Skull Valley. Dugway immediately denied that it had been testing any chemical weapons, however, that assertion was contradicted on March 21, 1968, when Utah Senator Frank Moss made public a Pentagon report that described the spraying of 320 gallons of VX on March 13.

Those sheep not killed outright were, according to the journal Science, "generally act[ing] dazed, [with] their heads tilted down and off to the side, walk[ing] in a stilted, uncoordinated manner," before they too eventually died. The sheep's symptoms conformed exactly to those caused by poisoning by VX nerve gas.

The National Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta tested water and grass from the Skull Valley area, as well as blood and livers of the dead sheep. Their tests "prove[ed] beyond doubt ..." that the deaths were caused by the Army's nerve agent.

Quietly, the Army paid $376,685 to the rancher, Alvin Hatch, whose sheep accounted for 90% of those killed. They also sent bulldozers to Hatch's ranch to aid in the mass burial of the sheep.

In February 1969, the TV network NBC broadcast a documentary about the Dugway sheep incident, and a congressman from New York named Richard McCarthy happened to see it. McCarthy was shocked, believing that chemical weapons had long ago been banned by an international agreement.

One big loophole

During World War I, all the major combatants used chemical weapons, to horrifying effect. More than 1 million soldiers were gassed, and more than 90,000 died. Following "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 the Geneva Protocol due to the location of its signing. As of April 2021, 146 states have ratified, acceded to, or succeeded to the Protocol.

Chemical weapons used during WWI
Chemical weapons used during WWI Source: U.S. Navy

The treaty prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons in international armed conflicts. It was signed on June 17, 1925, and entered into effect on February 8, 1928. It prohibits the use of "asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous 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 U.S. Congress finally approved the Protocol and it was proclaimed by President Gerald Ford. On top of this, the Protocol has nothing to say about production, storage, or transfer of chemical and biological weapons. Later treaties that covered these aspects — the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention were not signed until 1972 and 1993. That left the U.S. free to ramp up its chemical weapons production and testing, especially between the years 1961 and 1969.

So many chemical weapons were created that disposing of them became a problem, which was solved, in part, by dumping hundreds of thousands of tons of the chemicals into the ocean. Even worse, there was little official record keeping as to how much and where the weapons were dumped.

For chemical weapons that were stored on land, it was discovered that many of their containers were leaking, including 21,000 leaky chemical bomb clusters at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Denver.

In May 1969, Senator McCarthy, alerted by the news of the Dugway sheep kill, began congressional hearings on the U.S. chemical weapons program. Those hearings revealed that the program responsible for the disposal of the U.S.'s chemical weapons was named CHASE. This stood for "Cut Holes [in the containers] And Sink 'Em."

In July 1969, just two months after Senator McCarthy's hearings, 24 people on the U.S. military base on Okinawa became ill after exposure to a nerve gas agent which escaped its container through a small leak. The press attention eventually forced the Pentagon to admit that besides Okinawa and Dugway, open-air testing of the nerve agents Tabun, Sarin, Soman, VX, and mustard gas had been conducted at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, and Fort McClellan, Alabama.

Nerve agents still in use

As we've previously 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 went to the Skripal's house to investigate, he too fell ill.

Eventually, it was determined that the Skripals and Bailey were suffering the effects of the Novichok nerve agent, and it was alledged that two agents of Russia's G.R.U. Intelligence Service had slipped into the UK to conduct the attack, then slipped out again. They had carried the Novichok in a perfume bottle from a well-known brand, and following the attack, they discarded the bottle in a dumpster in the neighboring town of Amesbury.

When Amesbury resident Charlie Rowley went dumpster diving, looking for something nice to give to his girlfriend Dawn Sturgess, he was delighted to come up with the perfume, which he gave to Sturgess, who sprayed it on herself. Rowley survived, but Sturgess wasn't so lucky, leaving behind a young daughter.

Dawn Sturgess
Dawn Sturgess Source: Metropolitan Police

It is also generally accepted that in February 2018, weaponized chlorine gas was used on two Syrian towns, Saraqueb in Idlib and Douma in eastern Ghouta. Previous chemical attacks by the Syrian government on its people have also been alleged.

The Dugway sheep incident was portrayed in the 1972 movie, Rage, starring and directed by George C. Scott. Author Stephen King used the incident as the inspiration for his 1978 novel, The Stand.

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