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NERVE GAS LIKELY CAUSED LIFELONG ILLS

Ray Peck was likely hurt in the most infamous of all Cold War testing incidents - a March 13, 1968, release of nerve gas to the winds at Dugway Proving Ground, after which 6,000 sheep downwind in nearby Skull Valley died.

Peck was working outdoors at a Skull Valley ranch that evening between two herds that would soon perish. It was windy and snowy, and he developed an earache - so he went inside, according to reports he filed.The next day, he remembers the morning was crisp and beautiful. "It was so pretty, I couldn't resist eating a handful of the new snow," he said.

Then he saw dead birds nearby. In the distance, a dying rabbit struggled. "It was weird, but I just went to work (as a civilian employee at Dugway)," Peck says.

Soon the sheep began dying. An Army helicopter from Dugway landed in his yard and disgorged officials who Peck says collected dead wildlife and performed blood tests on his frightened family.

The Army never acknowledged that nerve gas killed the sheep - although scientists say small droplets of nerve agent VX on plants and snow (like the snow Peck ate) probably killed them. The Army did pay ranchers a $1 million settlement for the sheep, but it always maintained that no humans were hurt.

Scientists interviewed for a Deseret News probe last year say that claim is questionable.

Army records the newspaper obtained show, for example, that Peck's family and others in Skull Valley were sick the week after the incident with what they thought were bad cases of the flu. Scientists say they may have been showing symptoms of exposure to small amounts of nerve gas.

The Army in 1968 conducted blood tests on residents to measure the level of an enzyme that affects nerve control of muscles. Exposure to nerve agent would lower that level, but the Army said tests were within normal (but broad) ranges.

Scientists say now, however, that the Army needed to compare levels of individuals over time to ensure whether a drop in the enzyme level had occurred. It did not do that.

Also, documents showed that tests for Peck himself and some other Dugway employees who lived in Skull Valley were clearly below normal ranges - and their results were excluded when the Army computed averages for residents' blood tests, which it said showed residents were safe.

Not long after, Peck said he began experiencing violent headaches, numbness, a feeling of burning in his legs and "bouts of paranoia" that made it difficult for him to work.

"I had headaches once in a while before that, but never as bad or as constant. The same with my family. Some of the kids have the same problem," Peck said. "They got so severe that in 1985, I even had CT scans and everything. But the doctors couldn't find anything wrong."

The Deseret News found a series of studies by the National Academy of Sciences that said people who had been exposed to small amounts of nerve agent VX in lab accidents had reported many of the same symptoms.

Peck's family suffered another problem, which others exposed to VX had not reported in scientific studies. His family suffered several miscarriages and some deaths at birth after the incident.

"We come from large families and never had problems with that before. But the girls (who were children at the time of the accident) have had a real struggle with miscarriages," Peck said.

The Pecks' problems may have extra significance because the Army plans to burn chemical arms at Tooele Army Depot. Critics say small amounts of nerve agent could escape in smokestacks, which might again spread small amounts of nerve agent in Utah winds. The Army says the plant is safe.