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SALT LAKE CITY — A former state wildlife biologist who says exposure 15 years ago to sarin nerve gas at Dugway Proving Ground made her debilitatingly sick sued the U.S. Army in 2009.
But government lawyers contend Carolyn Bayless filed her lawsuit too late and want a federal judge to throw it out.
U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball will hear arguments in the case Thursday afternoon.
In 1997, Bayless conducted vegetation studies for the state Division of Wildlife Resources in Utah's West Desert, including areas next to Dugway Proving Ground. The Army uses the proving ground to test and incinerate biological and chemical weapons such a sarin, a colorless odorless liquid classified as a weapon of mass destruction.
No one wants to believe or conclude they were poisoned by their own government with horrific weapons of war.
–Steve Russell, Bayless' attorney
Within a month of working in the desert, Bayless says she started suffering various illnesses and neurological problems. Over the next several years, she saw dozens of doctors in an attempt to chase down the causes for her sickness.
Steve Russell, Bayless' attorney, wrote in court documents that Bayless was "extraordinarily" diligent in the pursuing the cause of her illnesses. "Her suspicions were repeatedly torpedoed by trusted medical professionals," he wrote.
It wasn't until 2006 that Bayless began to suspect her symptoms might be related to toxic exposure near Dugway.
"No one wants to believe or conclude they were poisoned by their own government with horrific weapons of war," Russell wrote.
In 2007, a Dallas doctor concluded that in "all medical probability" Bayless' neurological and immune system dysfunction is associated with sarin exposure at Dugway.
"Sarin is a human-made chemical warfare agent classified as a nerve agent. Nerve agents are the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents. They are similar to certain kinds of pesticides (insect killers) called organophosphates in terms of how they work and what kind of harmful effects they cause. However, nerve agents are much more potent than organophosphate pesticides."
Bayless sued the Army in May 2009.
"One does not go after the United States Army for its manufacture and use of weapons of mass destruction (wasn't that the grounds asserted for the nine-year war in Iraq?) without a clear and convincing causal relationship between such alleged exposure and subsequent injury," Russell wrote.
But assistant U.S. attorney Jeff Nelson argues that the two-year statute of limitations to file her lawsuit ran out in 2007. The clock to file, he said, started running when she suspected her illnesses might have been caused by nerve agents.
"The knowledge that plaintiff acquired in 2005 regarding both her symptoms and the activities at Dugway gave her ample reason to suspect a link between the two," Nelson wrote.
Russell contends the court should allow the case to move forward because Bayless only suspected but did not know the cause of her illness until June 2007.
"The government should not be allowed to get away with the harming of innocents with weapons of mass destruction under any circumstances, and especially when there is a legitimate issue of whether a plaintiff had enough knowledge about exposure to initiate a lawsuit," he wrote.
Nelson wrote that the Army wasn't involved in Bayless' medical diagnosis and it didn't mislead or dissuade her from filing a claim.