Northern Exposure

Northern Exposure

Korey Capozza received a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to research this article.


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.

In 1965, for reasons that are unclear from the declassified documents, the Army sprayed Bacillus globigii aerosols, a bacteria implicated in serious hospital infections, up and down the populated valley surrounding the base. Sampling crews were stationed in protective gear downwind from the releases to detect the bacteria’s movement and impact, but nearby residents were never informed of the tests. “The likelihood of individuals being exposed was very low. It was not a populated area,” said Barbara Goodno, program director of Public Affairs and Outreach in the DOD’s Deployment Health Support Directorate.

In fact, more than 700 people lived in the Tanana Valley in 1965–a fact apparently ignored by the Army. “There’s no doubt, based on the medical literature, that there was a risk to a certain portion of the population–those more prone to infection, like the very old and very young,” said Leonard Cole, a biological and chemical warfare expert at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Initially, the Gerstle River Test Site covered 19,000 acres, but in 1964 it was expanded by 79,000 acres onto land leased from the State of Alaska. Later, when the Army tried to end its lease and transfer the land back to the state as public property, a 1979 report by the General Accounting Office warned that “the Army cannot certify that the land has been decontaminated and available for other uses because essential records which provide details on the tests are not available.” Even a former commander at the test site, Col. James Henrionnet, was uneasy about the safety of the property. “Disparity in our interpretation of facts…as well as the incompleteness of records…give rise to doubt about our collective understanding of the status, location and quantities of residues,” he stated in a letter to senior Army authorities in 1977. Nonetheless, the transfer took place, and the leased portion of the test site is today a state-managed bison range and public recreation area used for hunting.

Now, thirty years after the last tests were conducted, veterans have come forward with various health problems that they suspect are related to their involvement in the secret weapons-testing program. But until last year, their complaints were perplexing to medical staff with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), because references to the veterans’ tenure at Fort Greely had been omitted from their medical records. “I asked the VA if [my medical problems] might have to do with the tests at Fort Greely. They said: ‘We have no record of those tests. You must be crazy–nothing like that ever happened,'” said Fort Greely veteran Jerrel Cook.

As the cases mounted, the VA pressured the DOD to declassify documents that might help medical professionals deliver care to the cold war veterans. “We didn’t know what it was, but we knew we were fooling with some pretty powerful stuff,” said Josh Willhite, a Fort Greely veteran who was never informed of the risks he faced at the site. Both Willhite and Cook, who have suffered various illnesses over the years, are now part of a class-action lawsuit filed in October 2002 against the DOD by veterans, their families and the Vietnam Veterans of America. The lawsuit, however, does not include civilians who may also have been exposed.

Though the tests and burial of the materials occurred decades ago, they likely remain a public health threat today. Chemical weapons experts say agents like VX, sarin and mustard gas retain their toxicity over decades when sealed in airtight containers like the drums used by the Army. Yet during public input meetings, Army representatives dismissed allegations that the site was still dangerous. “A lot of this is lore,” said John Killoran, public affairs officer for the US Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska. “We’ve had anecdotal reports where people have said there’s this and the other thing buried here…. We’ve found nothing.”

Alaska firefighters, however, tell a different story. Fire crews sent to extinguish blazes on the base in 1998 and 1999 were pulled off the fire when a nearly constant barrage of live ammunition and explosions threatened the safety of firefighters. “We were getting conflicting information from the military about the safety of these areas. There was undocumented ordnance out there that the military couldn’t answer for,” said Hank Falcon, a smoke jumper who fought the 1998 fire.

Meanwhile, the DOD has yet to address the allegations of veterans like Richard Carlson, and information on the tests conducted before 1965 is still locked in the DOD’s archives–as are details about the impact the tests may have on public health. Goodno says the department does not intend to release any more information unless it’s medically relevant to the VA. That policy was bolstered by the Bush Administration’s March 25 executive order delaying the release of millions of documents and giving the government more discretion to keep information indefinitely classified.

In Congress, after media attention around the issue last fall, the veterans’ cause was championed by Alaska Governor Tony Knowles and Senator Ted Stevens, both of whom called on the DOD to release the full details of the secret tests at Fort Greely. But Knowles was recently voted out of office, and Stevens’s commitment to the cause may be tenuous, given that he was the top Senate recipient of military-industry donations during the last election cycle.

If the base is clean and poses no public threat, the DOD should have nothing to fear, argues Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s a genuine outrage–national security is supposed to protect the nation and not the bureaucracy,” Aftergood said.

Meanwhile, veterans continue to file claims for service-related health benefits, to no avail–not one has been granted healthcare on the basis of exposure to agents used in the secret experiments. But the Pentagon’s integrity could be at stake if it continues to guard secrets about the US government’s testing of warfare agents on civilians and servicemen. Says Aftergood, “It could serve not only the interests of American veterans but its own credibility if it would simply disgorge all of these documents.”

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