Bartlett fears Md. bases are losing out on new vaccine plant

August 02, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

Two Maryland military bases, vying to house a $150 million Army plant to manufacture germ-warfare vaccines for all U.S. troops, are losing out to private industry or Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett said yesterday.

Mr. Bartlett, a Republican from Western Maryland's 6th District, said earlier that Fort Detrick in Frederick was a shoo-in for the plant because of its experience in operating such facilities safely.

In May, The Sun reported that officials at Aberdeen Proving Ground also had lobbied for the plant starting last fall. The lobbying occurred despite initial, in-house concerns about safety from the proving ground's commander and others.

The plant would employ up to 200 civilians and could be up to 325,000 square feet.

A Pentagon spokesman said yesterday that a decision on the plant site is expected within days.

The production of large quantities of vaccines to fight anthrax, botulism and other germ-warfare agents -- identified by the Pentagon after the Persian Gulf war as an "urgent and compelling need" -- requires growing and processing live microbes.

Although Fort Detrick has a 50-year history in biological warfare research and production, Aberdeen does not work with live biological agents.

News of Aberdeen's interest in the plant prompted a decisively negative response from community and business leaders who traditionally support large construction projects at the proving ground.

Gary Holloway, a proving ground spokesman, said he was not aware of any recent discussions on the vaccine plant between Aberdeen officials and the Pentagon.

Mr. Bartlett, saying he was frustrated that the Pentagon had wasted a year in planning the facility, released a five-page letter yesterday in which he called for the Defense Department's inspector general to investigate the siting process for the vaccine plant.

The congressman wrote that he was told last week by Dr. Harold Smith, an assistant secretary of defense, that the vaccine plant either would be located at Pine Bluff Arsenal or would be built and operated on nongovernment property by a private company.

Mr. Bartlett also questioned whether there was political interference in picking a site for the plant and asked whether there had been discussions between the Army and the White House about it. President Clinton's home state is Arkansas.

"This appeared to be essentially a done deal, that it was going to be built in Frederick," Mr. Bartlett said yesterday. "Our position is that if it is not [built at] Detrick, there has to be a very good reason that it be built someplace else."

Capt. Joe Piek, an Army spokesman, said the Pentagon's Joint Program Office for Biological Defense this week plans to deliver a report on the vaccine facility to Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutch.

"They expect a final decision [on the siting] early next week," Captain Piek said.

Officials in the biological defense agency could not confirm that Pine Bluff Arsenal was the preferred military installation. "That was news to them," Captain Piek said.

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