The Scare in the Air | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

The Scare in the Air 

As Dugway expands anthrax testing, the Army tries to figure out where its germs are.

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Officials from the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground held a briefing Feb. 10 at the Salt Lake City Main Library about plans to nearly double its experiments with germ warfare agents. Six people showed up. The expansion has been on the books since shortly after 2001’s anthrax letter attacks prompted the United States to ramp up its biological warfare defense program. Dugway officials now expect funding to be available as early as 2011. Already under construction is a retrofit of Dugway’s historic Baker Lab. The 1952 building has been gutted in preparation for installation of the country’s largest containment vessel for testing defenses to biological weapons such as anthrax.

Since the Army stopped outdoor testing in the late 1960s, it has had no way to perform large-scale tests using live, rather than sterilized or simulated, bio-war agents. The 120-square foot Whole Systems Live Agent chamber will change that. The only one of its kind, “it will put Utah and Dugway back on the map,” said Douglas Andersen, chief of Dugway’s life sciences division.

Dugway’s mission is to defend U.S. soldiers from biological weapons. The proving grounds test protective suits that block deadly pathogens as well as machines designed to sniff the air for bio-weapons. The chamber going in Baker Lab is designed to simultaneously test two detection systems, each about the size of a refrigerator. At the next-door Life Sciences Test Facility, plans call for doubling the size of the 10-year-old building to add up to 15 new germ experimentation laboratories, one-third of which would be designed for experimentation with so-called biosafety level-3 agents, a group of deadly germs that includes anthrax.

In addition to new laboratories, Dugway announced plans to use its airspace for experiments with unmanned, computer-driven aircraft that are the new vogue for everything from war to firefighting. All of these projects are to be included in an environmental assessment scheduled to be available for public comment in about three months.

The same day that Dugway held its Salt Lake City briefing, the Army announced it had ordered an indefinite stop to most research at a larger, sister bio-defense facility at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, Md., where auditors recently discovered vials of deadly germs outside those accounted for on the fort’s inventories.

Inspections of all Army bio-defense facilities were prompted by this summer’s FBI conclusion that a Fort Detrick scientist was responsible for mailing the 2001 anthrax letters. The FBI said anthrax produced at Dugway was sent to Fort Deitrich. There, an unhinged scientist allegedly modified it, mixed it with other Anthrax and labeled the resulting concoction “Dugway 97,” before drying it and putting it into envelopes.

Dugway was the first Army facility inspected and, according to Dugway officials, passed with flying colors: There were no “major findings,” and Dugway was able to account for all of its dangerous germs.

Handling of bio-defense material at Dugway was questioned during the anthrax-letter investigation when it was revealed anthrax vials had been routinely shipped back and forth between Dugway and Fort Detrick using FedEx.

Neither the Utah Division of Air Quality, nor the state Health Department were aware of Dugway’s plans. Utah abandoned a Dugway oversight committee in the late-1990s.

For Dugway watchdog group Citizens Education Project, the items of greatest concern in Dugway’s expansion are new germ storage rooms and freezers. Experimenting with small amounts of anthrax is one thing; making tankers of the stuff is another. Particularly when about half the germ testing at Dugway is geared to creating aerosol germ clouds that mimic how bio-bombs would be used in an enemy attack.

Citizens Education Project Director Steve Erickson asked Dugway officials to be specific about the size of the proposed storage—which he deemed “Pandora’s ice box”—in the forthcoming environmental assessment.

“If you want to be clean with the public, we want to know what your inventory is going to be,” Erickson told Dugway officials at the scoping meeting. The size of samples kept at Dugway “will be key to public acceptance.”

The proposal to build storage space dedicated to anthrax-level pathogens raises concerns for Erickson, in part, because of orders Dugway placed several years ago for large quantities of anthrax and huge bacteria-making fermentors.

The 2005 request called for up to nine fermentors that would have given Dugway almost as much capacity as Iraq admitted to at the height of its biowar program. Dugway has said it never filled the orders.

Dugway’s Andersen noted that the facility is barred, in part by international treaties, from producing germs for stockpiling. He said the primary reason for the proposed storage is to comply with the Army’s new requirements for inventory, a task that has proved difficult in the existing cramped building.

The proposal to use the air above Dugway to test unmanned aircraft brought requests to address safety of surrounding areas. “What happens if they are testing a vehicle and it goes off to the nonrestricted area?” asks Cindy King of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club. Dugway officials said aircraft selfdestruct if they get within several miles of restricted airspace boundaries.

The unmanned flights are just one of several recently announced plans to increase military aircraft testing above Utah. In June, the Army announced plans to launch missile-mimicking drones from Utah’s west desert toward a balloon-and-radar system near Dugway.

Demands for testing aircraft on the Utah-Nevada border have grown to the point that the Air Force in September asked to expand the massive Utah Test and Training Range by creating a new Military Operations Area of restricted airspace over wildlife habitat. Dugway recently completed construction of a Hill Air Force-size runway with help of $2 million from the Utah Legislature.

The buildup, particularly of biodefense, has some watchdogs scratching their heads. Barry Kissin, a Maryland attorney and activist who lives three miles from the recently suspended research at Fort Detrick, notes the massive expansion of U.S. bio-defense laboratories was prompted by anthrax the FBI now says originated at U.S. bio-defense laboratories.

“We attacked ourselves,” he says. “We are increasing by 20 times the size of the program that generated the only biological attack in our history.”

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