Delta Junction, Alaska
In spring 2002, construction crews excavating silo pits for a missile defense site in Fort Greely, Alaska, chanced upon a disturbing discovery–a buried cache of twenty-four mysterious fifty-five-gallon drums leaking a toxic solvent used to neutralize highly lethal chemical weapons. Construction was halted, workers were rushed to the hospital and a hazardous materials team descended upon the site. The surprise dumpsite is one of several that have come to light since Fort Greely was last used in the early 1970s as a top-secret chemical and biological weapons test center.
The refusal by the Department of Defense to fully release information about those experiments–and Fort Greely veterans’ fear that they may be prosecuted under the Army’s nondisclosure order if they speak publicly–have kept the bases’ activities largely out of the public eye. Now, however, a lawsuit filed against the DOD last fall on behalf of veterans and the release of previously classified documents are undermining the department’s efforts to hide this disquieting chapter of military history. They reveal that the test site at Fort Greely was operated with cavalier disregard for the health of both military personnel and the residents of the small towns that surround the base. This new information also suggests that deadly materials used at the site are still unaccounted for.
Prior to the release of these documents, glimpses of what occurred at Fort Greely only came to light because of the tireless work of local organizations and veterans concerned about its safety. The Tanana Chiefs Conference, an organization that represents the native villagers who live near the base, has fought a David and Goliath battle with the Army for more than five years. After failed attempts to access Army records, the TCC invested its scarce funds in sending researchers to the national and Army archives in Washington, DC, Seattle and St. Louis, and in hiring investigators to interview Fort Greely veterans and longtime residents.
It’s now clear that the Army created a 19,000-acre reserve in 1952 for the explicit purpose of testing deadly chemical and biological weapons. Activities at the Gerstle River Test Site, as it was known, were so secret that they remained a mystery even to Delta Junction, the 800-person town that borders the site. Between 1962 and 1967 the Army blasted hundreds of rockets and bombs filled with sarin and VX nerve agent into the region’s wildlife-rich forests. Because of the base’s remote location, disposal of unused weapons was often haphazard and reckless, say veterans of the cold war tests.
According to one veteran, Richard Carlson, a former chemical specialist who was sent to Fort Greely in 1959 to take part in open-air trials of VX and mustard gas, personnel there buried approximately six canisters containing two quarts of lethal VX agent about a half-mile from the Alaska Highway. Carlson saw discarded mustard-gas containers leaking into the ground, contaminating a tract of land surrounding a storage shed and migrating into the local ecosystem. In one notorious incident, the Army piled canisters of nerve agents on a frozen lake during the winter of 1966. When the lake melted in the spring, the lethal chemicals sank to the bottom. More than three years passed before the Army drained the lake and cleaned up the neglected arsenal.