Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Sheep of Skull Valley

Skull Valley, Utah, is a tiny Indian Reservation about fifty miles southwest of Salt Lake City. Its sparse population is largely comprised of the Goshute Tribe and was once the home of the Skull Valley Livestock Company. The area is a remote, desert town. The only major landmark is the nearby US Army science facility referred to as the Dugway Proving Ground. First constructed in 1941, the facility was the site of top-secret weapons research programs.

The place was a hell-hole.

The primary avenues of research were the development of chemical, biological, and radiological weapons. Artillery loaded with nerve agents and blister agents were test fired, and pools of nerve agents were incinerated in massive open pits. Cultures of anthrax were grown and tested on animals. So-called "dirty bombs" were constructed and deliberately detonated. Nuclear reactors were assembled and allowed to melt-down, all to study the effects. The experiments numbered in the thousands. It was thought that the barren desert environment afforded them the space to conduct these dangerous, horrific tests without any risk of accidental contamination.

On March 13th, 1968, a routine test was conducted without incident. VX nerve gas was sprayed out from a jet in a designated area twenty-five miles away from Skull Valley. The jet returned to the Proving Ground and the researchers continued with their work. Unknown to anyone, the switch-off valve in the spray nozzle had been broken. The jet had continued to spray VX into the air even after it had departed from the designated test site. Later, phones around the base were ringing off the hook.

It took several days to determine how many sheep had died, but the total is thought to be 6,400. The US Army admitted they had been experimenting with nerve gas, but initially denied any responsibility for the deaths. With the nature of the Dugway Proving Ground exposed for all to see, the public backlash was considerable. Then President Nixon issued a ban on open-air chemical weapon testing the following year, and the US Army Chemical Corp was close to dissolution. However, the Proving Ground remained in operation. The full findings from the Army's investigation of the event were not declassified until 1998.

The U.S. General Accounting Office has since acknowledged that additional radioactive and bacterial contamination from the Proving Ground is likely, although it is impossible to determine how many people in Skull Valley and elsewhere were harmed. Meanwhile, the Proving Ground has been recently used by US Army Special Forces to train troops for the War in Afghanistan.

Would you like to know more?
Read "Nobody Here But Us Dead Sheep" from Life Magazine, 1969
Read "Skull Valley's Nerve Gas Neighbors
-Read "Toxic Utah"
-Listen to this story from All Things Considered, 1998


  1. this sounds like the setup for a stephen king novel.
    - James

  2. I think it did provide partial inspiration for the Stand, along with the Symbionese Liberation Army. I don't remember for sure, though.

  3. I think the really surprising thing isn't that the military has chemical weapons and dirty bombs, but that they deemed it necessary to test their lethality.

    "Sure, we all know this VX nerve gas is deadly, but the question remains - HOW deadly? Gentlemen, let's set fire to a nerve gas pit and get to work!"