After this week's rain and snow, the ceremony was really more of a mud-parting than a groundbreaking.

And some folks chuckled when the general was the only one to actually dirty his boots during the shoveling. The architect and the colonel kept their feet safely on the wooden walkway while doing their digging.But the purpose of Thursday's ceremony, which brought out from Maryland the commanding general of the Army's Test and Evaluation Command - Maj. Gen. George H. Akin - was a serious one. Dugway Proving Ground is building a new chemical laboratory because its old lab cannot meet safety requirements.

Part of Dugway's mission is to test military clothing, weapons and equipment to make sure they'll withstand a chemical-warfare attack. The chemical lab handles much of the testing and analysis. In the tests, items are challenged with standard chemical-warfare agents - nerve agents GB, GD and VX and blister agents Lewisite and mustard.

The two lab buildings where testing now takes place were constructed in 1952 and 1959, "and little has been done since then to update them," said Dugway's commander, Col. Jan A. Van Prooyen. Roofs need repair. Plumbing and electrical systems no longer work effectively.

And, "every couple of years the regulations get more strict, more severe, and we're always playing catch-up," said Kenneth Brauner, chief of Dugway's Chemical Laboratory Division. So the lab is perennially out of compliance with safety regulations for work with toxic chemicals.

Brauner said that when inspectors come through they find deficiencies, but the violations are not creating serious safety hazards. One violation is that the lab has administrative personnel working in areas where toxic-chemical agents are being used. In the new building, that will change. Another hazard that will be eliminated will be the transfer of toxic-chemical agents from building to building, he said.

Bringing the existing facilities up to requirements would cost more than building a new lab, said Van Prooyen and Brauner. So "Big D" Construction Corp., Ogden, was selected to build the new facility, after the company submitted its bid of $11.7 million. Gustavson Associates, Salt Lake City, is the architect/engineer.

The new lab is a replacement facility, not an expansion, said Van Prooyen. The 39-person work force will remain essentially the same, as will the workload.

The new building will be built on the site of an existing structure that until 1963 housed test animals and later was used for storage, said Brauner. That building will be demolished after asbestos is removed. Two smaller storage buildings already have been taken down, and one more shed will be removed.

The two existing buildings where testing with agents is conducted will be renovated for other uses. One building will be turned into storage space. The other, originally built as a medical holding facility and later turned into a chemical lab, will house administrative offices, a conference room, library and reading room, glassware and instrument workshop and storage room, and a locker room with showers.

The new lab will contain six testing labs, six analysis labs, three gas chromatography labs, six instrumentation labs, a solvent dispensary, offices for chemists and technicians, a synthesis lab, two sampler preparation and receiving labs, a chemical-agent storage room and a glassware cleaning room.