GENEWATCH
 
THE LAB IN MY BACKYARD
By Beth Willis
 

 

I moved to Frederick, Maryland in 1975, six years after President Nixon shut down the nation's offensive biowarfare program, headquartered in Federick at Fort Detrick.   Word around town was that a small Army program remained, performing research on diseases that might impact military personnel deployed around the world, but the leading message was that Fort Detrick was now home to the newest campus of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). 

There were stories of course, a lot of stories, from people who had worked there and from folks who had grown up near the Fort: dead cows near the perimeter; experiments with flu virus dispersed on the population; buildings containing pathogens so toxic they would never be unsealed; researchers who died; absence of good safety practices; and Frank Olsen's tragic and mysterious death. I thought these must be urban legends. Besides, I thought, now the Fort is just for cancer research.  As you might have guessed, I eventually learned that a good many of those stories were true.

In 2001 everything changed at Fort Detrick.  That year's anthrax attacks were followed in short order by a fundamental policy shift from biomedical to biodefense research and funding.   By 2003 biodefense had become big business, and high-containment biosafety level 3 and 4 labs performing research with biowarfare pathogens were proliferating around the country.  The militarization of basic biomedical research was underway.  Fort Detrick was named national headquarters, home to the National Interagency Biodefense Campus (NIBC) that would house high containment labs for the Army, Homeland Security, National Institutes of Health, Department of Agriculture and others.   We're not certain of the ultimate size of the NIBC, as that information is not publicly available. Estimates have changed over time, as have the mission statements and lists of pathogens that will be investigated, but Congressional testimony in 2007 indicates that the 8,600 Square feet of BSL-4 labs operating at that time at Fort Detrick will grow to over 1.3 million square feet of level 3 and 4 labs by the time the NIBC is complete.  It will be the largest biodefense lab complex in the world, researching pathogens such as Ebola, plague, tularemia, anthrax and numerous other pathogens.  

In the meantime Frederick is no longer a small country town. It has grown to over 60,000 people and 235,000 in the county.  Fort Detrick sits on 400 acres located near the city's historic core, and the Fort is now surrounded by thousands of homes and many schools.  Half of the acreage is now a superfund site, not yet fully remediated from TCE/PCE contamination mixed with pathogen infected animals carcasses and vials.   Funding limitations have made for slow cleanup over the past 21 years.

The community first learned of the planned lab expansion in 2003, with the first of three nearly identical Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) that were issued over three years, one for each of the three largest NIBC lab complexes. These documents were veritable cut and paste duplicates that provided little in the way of credible risk assessment. Over the past seven years the community has engaged in a long and frustrating journey through what we have concluded is a broken National Environmental Protection Act process. We have organized and fought hard for community rights here in Frederick.  We also know that high containment biodefense lab proliferation is a national policy problem that has to be addressed in Washington. 

Locally, we have been working to get that credible risk assessment, because we agree with NEPA that it is needed for adequate risk mitigation and also because the public needs to know clearly and explicitly what risks we are being asked to assume. It is also the law-a law designed to protect communities.  We are also working to try to ensure comprehensive public health preparedness, transparency, public accountability and a way to make sure that community concerns are actually addressed. We work with other biodefense lab communities around the country and lobby for policy changes. 

We have learned a great deal about NEPA, hazard assessments, biodefense labs, and the research being conducted with bioweapons pathogens.  This learning curve is a significant barrier for the general public to feel they can understand the NEPA documents, comment and get involved, but I'm impressed with how much people can contribute when equipped with a healthy dose of common sense. We have discovered that our specific health and safety concerns are also of concern to credible scientists, members of Congress and the Government Accountability Office. 

The risks?  Public health risks from accidents and insider sabotage are high on the list. The most disturbing scenarios-and the ones not assessed in the EISs-are what happen most often:  workers do not realize they are infected and go home.  This happened at USAMRIID last November with a worker who almost died from a tularemia infection before being properly diagnosed and treated. An Army investigation revealed that this worker failed to follow multiple "ironclad" procedures, and as a result visited several local doctors, flew to another city for Thanksgiving, and walked around the community for several weeks before it became clear that she was ill from something other than the flu.  Insider threat has already happened of course, with the Anthrax attacks, though it was deemed improbable and therefore was not evaluated as a potential risk in the EISs.

So, what has happened with our seven years of community organizing?  We attended scores of formal NEPA meetings, provided hundreds of pages of detailed comments, and worked closely with local and national elected officials, the press and other local players. In 2007 a host of people-scientists, engineers, lawyers, business people, just people-spent hours testifying before our local Board of County Commissioners, asking them to sponsor a court review of the EIS. In early 2008 we drafted a detailed petition to the Army, to the County Commissioners and to Senator Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., asking for a National Academy of Sciences safety study. This approach gained political support. After 18 months of painful negotiation with the DOD, the study was conducted in the fall of 2009, the results released in March 2010.  

The NAS committee concluded that the Environmental Impact Statement hazard assessment was not credible.  It concluded that community trust was lacking and NIBC communication with the surrounding community was poor.  The committee supported the community's assertion that there were real gaps in public health preparedness and planning. The committee made some excellent recommendations for improvements-and it stated that because there would be state of the art equipment and procedures, the committee was confident that the labs would be safe. While the committee found the failed risk assessment to be unfortunate, they did not recommend it be revisited. They recommended that federal entities endeavor to do better in the future. Senator Mikulski has demanded that all of the NAS recommendations be implemented.  Two months later, nothing has occurred.  There will be no new risk assessment.   

What's wrong with this picture for all of us?  Well it certainly makes clear just how broken the NEPA process is.  Agencies hire contractors to evaluate projects, resulting in EISs that are not independent assessments and do not serve to protect communities, as intended by law. It is a profitable repeat business, understood to be a paper chase.  A successful lawsuit may require a more useful and adequate EIS that actually informs decision-making about location and other factors, as it is supposed to. Unfortunately we were unable to raise the significant funds necessary to take that action- and short of a lawsuit, there is little citizen recourse for failed EISs.  There needs to be a legislative fix for this conflict of interest, a rule change with the EPA to ensure that those conducting the EISs do not have a financial interest in the success of the agency requesting them.

It was also clear from the testimony of lab officials during the National Academy study process that officials at the Fort were so confident that a pathogen would never escape the labs that there were significant gaps in planning for what would happen if one did.  This was particularly evident for scenarios not assessed in the EIS, such as for certain insect vectors and the real possibility of lab workers not knowing they are infected.  Key emergency-related questions did not have clear answers.  Five federal departments, three major lab complexes-who do local officials call to get answers? Who has knowledge and authority for all of NIBC?  If there is an accident, who will lab officials contact in the community and under what circumstances?  How will lab officials work with the county public health officer?  Who has authority to determine when quarantine is required?  Who do local doctors and ER staff contact at the labs if they think they are dealing with laboratory acquired infection?  How would these local doctors even know, particularly in the case of a novel pathogen?  These are all questions we hope will now start to be addressed.  They are not theoretical questions-most of the above incidents have already occurred.  These questions are relevant to all communities in proximity to biodefense labs.

And yes, we continue to grapple with the massive inequity of power between powerful, mission-driven bureaucracies and local communities.  Communication is inherently difficult between two these very different worlds.  Lab officials are clear that they believe additional information about lab safety will address citizen "fearfulness."  The community sees this characterization as dismissive of the specific issues we have raised and avoids the establishment of a real role for elected officials and citizens in addressing public health and safety.  The input of citizens, public health and elected officials needs to directly inform all aspects of laboratory planning, design, development and operations.   Labs should have informed siting; whereas in the case of Fort Detrick, no alternative locations were ever considered. 

Leadership at Fort Detrick changes every 3 or 4 years, as do our elected officials.  We are a long way from finding an effective means to ensure that community rights are both established and do not fade away with each changing of the guard.  Establishing a requirement for an independent community board with teeth is a nationwide necessity for siting large federal and military projects and should be addressed in federal law.  

The simplest solution is to use these labs for research of more direct concern, focusing on emerging public health issues rather than theoretical bioterror threats.  Labs certainly need better regulation and oversight to ensure adequate safety.  We are told that at Fort Detrick we have the best procedures available ... except when they don't work.  It's cold comfort.  

Beth Willis is a leader of the Frederick Citizens for Bio-lab Safety.

 
 
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