Biodefense lab causing qualms

Some Fort Detrick neighbors air concerns

November 19, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

FREDERICK -- Construction is already under way on a new $1 billion biodefense research center at Fort Detrick, but some neighboring residents - and at least one elected official - are questioning how safe it is to expand laboratories working with dangerous disease agents such as Ebola and smallpox in the midst of the densely populated Frederick community.

Fort Detrick, which has been working with deadly pathogens since World War II, is an economic engine for Frederick County and has enjoyed staunch support from local business and political leaders for decades.

But now, some residents are uncomfortable with the federal government's post-Sept. 11 push to expand mystery-shrouded work with exotic diseases and biological agents on the Army post.

At the behest of one of its members, the Board of County Commissioners plans to give the public a chance to air its concerns at a forum at 7 o'clock tonight at Frederick City Hall.

"We've had Fort Detrick forever. I think some people feel almost disloyal by speaking up," said County Commissioner David P. Gray, who acknowledged that he appears to be alone among local public officials in questioning the Detrick buildup.

But, he added, "This is a big change coming here. It has its dangers. People ought to know more about it."

The National Interagency Biodefense Campus has been in the works since 2002, when the Bush administration and Congress called for concentrating various federal agencies' biological agent research at Fort Detrick, where such work has been done for years.

A "biodefense analysis and countermeasures center" for the Department of Homeland Security has been under construction since last year, with completion expected next year. A new lab for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, is due to be finished by 2009.

The third major lab facility is to be a partial replacement and expansion of the existing U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases. The final environmental impact statement assessing the potential harm - and benefits -of the project was finished late last year. Ground is expected to be broken in another couple of years.

But some residents, several of them outspoken peace activists, have challenged the adequacy of the environmental study.

"When these laboratories arrived here, Frederick was a Podunk little town," said Beth Willis, a former federal contractor who has lived here since 1975. "We're a big city now. At what point do you re-evaluate should this be in a different location?"

With 7,900 people working there, Fort Detrick already is Frederick County's largest employer. With the biodefense campus and expansion of another base tenant, the National Cancer Institute, the work force is projected to grow by 1,425 in the next few years.

Studies have been prepared over the past four years of the environmental impact of each of the three research centers, which will be grouped on about 200 acres of the 1,200-acre installation on the northern end of the city.

Despite those studies, and the public meetings held as part of them, some residents remain uneasy.

"Exactly what are they going to be doing?" asked Fran Locke, 57, a retired Hood College administrator who lives with her husband in a neat rancher just outside the base fence. "How well is security going to be maintained? What are their provisions for in case of an episode?"

Her husband, Ray Locke, 66, said he used to work at Detrick for a contractor that sterilized the waste generated in the biosafety labs. Looking across his backyard to the base from his kitchen window, he said they occasionally get whiffs of superheated, sterilized grain that is fed to the research animals on base. He wondered whether that means their house would be downwind if a disease organism does leak out.

"It's the wrong location, in the middle of things," Ray Locke said of the new biodefense lab.

It's unclear whether anyone from the Army will attend or respond later to the residents' questions and concerns. Base officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

"Because we already provided numerous opportunities for the public to comment and provide input during the EIS [environmental impact statement] process, we see no need to participate in another public meeting," a base spokeswoman, Sarah Maxwell, wrote in an e-mail.

The Army's environmental study concluded that risks to the surrounding community from expanding the work with dangerous organisms would be "negligible" because of safety measures designed into the buildings and precautions followed by the workers.

But last month, the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, warned that there would be increased risks of an accident or terrorism associated with the proliferation of government, university and private labs set up to handle virulent pathogens.

Some Frederick residents want the county to go to court to block construction, arguing that the federal government did not give adequate consideration to building the new labs somewhere less populated. They point to similar lawsuits, still pending, filed in Massachusetts against a biosafety lab at Boston University.

Jan H. Gardner, president of the Board of County Commissioners, said she supports her colleague's quest to air questions about the new labs at the base. But she pointed out that there's still broad support for the work being done at the fort, and she knows people who work there who have assured her that they are not worried about safety.

Some of the most serious questions being raised, Gardner added, are beyond her jurisdiction.

"We aren't really the body that makes decisions about expansion of Fort Detrick," she said. "That decision was made by the federal government in the interests of national defense."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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