U.S. Army contractors constantly search the desert at Dugway Proving Ground for signs of old munitions or once-buried waste canisters that have worked their way to the surface.

Their work is a vivid reminder that, as the Army admits, good records were not kept in the early days at Dugway about where arms and waste were buried - and that the environment was not an overriding concern in early Army testing.The Army says Dugway operations are now safe and environmentally sound. And Dugway just established an environmental management division to develop and implement plans to clean up old waste sites and attack problems such as leaking underground storage tanks, asbestos in buildings and substandard wastewater treatment.

But critics still have doubts - and point to years of apparent hazardous-waste law violations, environmental impact reports they say are inadequate, government reports that question safety procedures and the Army deciding that areas it once described as "permanently contaminated" are now safe.

How safe is Dugway? No one - including Army officials - may know for sure.

For example, the Deseret News received a call last spring from a man who would describe himself only as a non-military government employee. He said the Army had asked him and others four years ago how long it would take to use conventional metal detectors to find the buried waste at Dugway.

"They don't have any idea where a lot of it (waste from biologic, chemical and even radioactivity tests) is buried or how deep it is. Back 20 or 30 years ago, environmental concerns weren't what they are today. They just put the results of lab tests in canisters and told soldiers to go bury them somewhere out of the way," the caller said.

He added, "You have to wonder what's out there and whether it could spread. Wild animals could wander in (since much of the base is not fenced), get contaminated and spread it to other areas. Birds could fly in and do the same. The proving ground is on a major migration path and Fish Springs (National Wildlife Refuge) is just south of it."

Dugway spokeswoman Kathleen Whitaker acknowledges that the Army has contractors constantly searching for once-buried waste and munitions, and that the Army didn't keep good records in the early years.

Another cause for concern from Dugway's past is how some "permanently contaminated" areas were declared safe.

The Salt Flat Grids - about 35 miles from Wendover - were declared permanently contaminated in 1967 because of contamination by anthrax-causing spores.

But the Army said later soil tests showed the area was safe. And in 1974, it placed some sheep - which are highly susceptible to the disease - in the area for three months. They did not catch the disease.

So Army scientists concluded that anthrax spores apparently could not survive the arid, alkaline area, and the area was again deemed safe. The "permanently contaminated"label was attached for only seven years.

Investigative journalist Charles Piller says in a story in this week's "The Nation" that Army documents released through the Freedom of Information Act hint why the Army felt such contaminated fields were safe. "The (anthrax) agent can no longer be detected in four plots. . . . This, perhaps, was due in part to a heavy windstorm which cut into these plots and blew away the surface soil and organisms," the documents said.

That all may be very worrisome because as Lt. Col Harold Hodge, former Dugway commander and biochemist, told the Deseret News in 1979, "It is not possible to decontaminate anthrax spores. It lives in the soil and stays there" and is dangerous to man.

For such reasons, Great Britain prohibits visitors to Gruinard Island off Scotland, where anthrax spores contaminated the soil during World War II testing. It predicts the visitor ban will last for centuries.

And at Ft. Detrick, Md., a tower where anthrax spores were cultivated was off limits for two decades. But the Army is planning to allow contractors to use it again because the space is needed. However, workers will be required to wear masks, said Ft. Detrick public affairs officer Norm Covert.

Piller said Army documents he has obtained outline other dangerous practices and accidents at Dugway through the years. He said, for example, that several test reports reveal that clouds of anthrax spores reached U.S. 40 (now I-80) and the town of Wendover north and west of Dugway. The Army even recommended such tests continue as long as average human exposure was estimated at less than 10 spores.

He said the reports also show that the Army tests were conducted in winds up to 60 miles per hour, even though the Army has claimed for years that it performs tests only in optimum weather conditions.

Examples of accidents that Piller says documents reveal include one in 1951, when a jet accidentally lost eight bombs filled with germs that cause undulant fever and filled also with some undisclosed other agent. In 1967, 3 liters of another undisclosed agent leaked from an airplane onto a runway at Dugway.

Some critics, such as Steve Erickson, spokesman for the watchdog group Downwinders, also complain that environmental documents required before Army tests over the years were only cursory at best.

Before open-air germ warfare tests, the Army wrote what it called a "Conscientious Mental Evaluation" describing expected test procedures, what environmental or health impacts if any were expected and what safety procedures were planned. The name of the report was later changed to "Record of Environmental Consideration."

Erickson has complained that the reports were as cursory as their names suggest, and that they too quickly concluded that test impacts would be nil - possibly without consideration of all pertinent information.

Even when the Army was required to perform much more detailed environmental impact statements, critics complain the Army was still too superficial.

For example, Foundation of Economic Trends President Jeremy Rifkin sued the Army to force it to prepare an EIS on a once-proposed lab at Dugway that would make aerosols out of dangerous germs.

When the report was completed, Rifkin said it "is shoddily prepared, grossly inadequate and in clear violation of National Environmental Protection Act and its relevant regulations" because it dismissed many issues without giving details why and totally failed to address other concerns.

The Utah Department of Health was among many agencies that also claimed Dugway was ignoring National Environmental Protection Act requirements - but did so in the way it handled hazardous waste.

The state claimed that Dugway violated the law since 1980 by burning hazardous wastes without permits; impounding rinse water and liquid residue from tests of chemical weapons without permits; and storing some hazardous wastes on base without permits.

Dugway commander Jan Van Prooyen signed an agreement in August saying his post will obey hazardous-waste laws from now on. In return, the state agreed not to fine the post for any past violations - which could have been up to $10,000 per day per violation.

Besides environmental concerns, a recent congressional report questions safety programs at bases such as Dugway.

The majority staff of the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management said it found "serious deficiencies in the Department of Defense's management of safety issues in the chemical/biologic warfare research program, including inadequate regulations, lax safety enforcement and documented safety lapses."

The report did not attack Dugway itself. It attacked the Department of Defense for not being able to know how safe bases such as Dugway are because it has no programs to effectively review and regulate safety. It noted that some of Dugway's sister bases, such as Ft. Detrick, have had fires in areas with dangerous germs, have misplaced vials of deadly agents, had serious laboratory spills and numerous employee exposures to germ warfare agents.

Dugway officials note that they have had no injuries from germ warfare agents during the past 10 years, and had only nine exposures to toxic substances from 1951 to 1978.

Another safety concern raised recently is about how the Army ships many of the germs and other toxic materials through regular mail in special, triple-sealed packages. The Postal Service is proposing a ban on some such shipments, and 18 congressmen - including Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah - have called for the Army to stop such shipments.

Despite all such health and environmental concerns, the Army says it is improving how it handles such issues.

For example, Col. Justin M. Reese is in charge of a new environmental office at Dugway. He said Van Prooyen has charged it with the responsibility to correct mistakes of the past and pursue an ambitious program to improve the environment at Dugway through numerous projects.

He said the Army has a sort of Superfund to clean up waste sites. He said his office is developing plans for an inspection of sites on the base that may qualify.

The base plans to spend millions in the next several years on projects ranging from replacing leaking underground storage tanks, improving wastewater treatment, monitoring the condition of groundwater, removing dangerous asbestos from buildings and replacing leaking underground storage tanks.

Reese said Van Prooyen has put a high priority on ensuring that the base from now on complies with all environmental and health laws - and said activities of his office demonstrate that commitment.