Researchers at the U.S. Army's Edgewood Center are racing to counter an array of terrorists' threats from chemical and biological weapons

December 10, 2006|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,sun staff

Sealed in a small steel chamber at the Edgewood area of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Tim Blades drilled a hole in a 1980s-era nerve gas artillery shell recovered in Iraq.

Insurgents there used chemical shells at least once in an improvised explosive, and the Army wanted to determine how big a threat similar aging weapons posed.

As the drill pierced the metal skin, something unexpected happened. A mix of sarin and cyclosarin, two super-toxic nerve agents, shot out, spraying yellow poisons inside a protective box, which began to leak. Alarms sounded.

Blades and his colleague, Frank Evans, wore only light protective gear. Both had just five minutes of emergency air in tanks on their backs. Slowly, deliberately, they put down their tools and unlatched the heavy steel door and headed for safety in the decontamination rooms.

Blades, Evans and a fast-growing throng of co-workers at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Harford County are racing to stay ahead of an evolving threat of terrorism - identifying possible new terrorist chemical and biological weapons and ways to counter terrorist enemies.

Not so long ago, the Harford County center's high-security research labs focused on preparing for the use of chemical arms by standing armies on the old-fashioned battlefield.

Now, scientists and technicians at ECBC, as it's known, have been drafted into America's struggle against rogue states, jihadis and home-grown extremists. "One could argue that right now, it's the most important part of what we do," said Jim Zarzycki, the ECBC's director.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the center has engaged in scores of projects reflecting its broad responsibility to fortify U.S. defenses. It has evaluated new terror technology, including an al-Qaida device for generating cyanide gas; analyzed the Washington postal equipment contaminated in 2001 by letters containing anthrax; deployed biological sensors at the Pentagon; and regularly sent experts abroad to destroy stockpiles of weapons.

Scientists are said by outside experts to also be part of a secretive U.S. effort to develop new "non-lethal" agents, intended, they say, to knock out hostage-takers, or pacify a hostile population.

This urgent new mission has doubled the ECBC's budget and attracted scores of young researchers to its expanding labs. The work force has increased by 50 percent over the past decade, with much of the growth coming after Sept. 11.

Located on a neck of land in the northern Chesapeake Bay between the Gunpowder and Bush rivers, Edgewood's forests and fields brood over a minefield, a dump where workers once burned toxic compounds, former weapons test ranges and a factory-like structure built to dispose of unexploded chemical ordnance found on site. Once known as Edgewood Arsenal, today it is part of neighboring Aberdeen Proving Ground, the Army's oldest active weapons development center.

Edgewood has several abandoned brick buildings too contaminated to use, and too expensive to tear down. They sprout weeds and small trees. Labs that study super-toxic compounds bristle with pipes and ventilation ducts, and are surrounded by barbed wire and crash barriers. Medical evacuation helicopters stand ready on the base's central runway at all times.

For decades, Edgewood was one of this nation's most secret research labs. Even after the United States ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention outlawing chemical arms in 1997, the base has kept a low profile.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the National Guard set up machine-gun emplacements and tightened security. The Army accelerated plans to destroy 1,600 tons of mustard agent stored outdoors in steel containers, out of fear of an air strike that might create a lung-searing vapor cloud 30 miles from Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Despite concerns about security, ECBC officials agreed last summer to give The Sun access to some of their scientists and programs. Officials there opened the doors of some labs, workshops and offices that had been closed to the outside world.

The result was a glimpse of a formerly secret world, inhabited by what one scientist called "the 100-pound brains" behind America's chemical defenses.

Until about a decade ago, the ECBC and other Edgewood labs seemed like quaint relics of yesterday's wars. Standard chemical weapons are more of an annoyance than a threat to well-equipped and well-trained troops. They are useless against insurgents and guerrillas, America's most likely foes.

But super-toxic poisons are, experts agree, an efficient weapon for sowing fear and chaos. "A battlefield can be anywhere now," said Neal Langerman, a scientist with the American Chemical Society's Division of Chemical Health and Safety.

A National Research Council 2002 report, Making the Nation Safer, called chemical agents "the weapon of choice for terrorist attacks."

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