Citizens worried about Fort Detrick biolab

Published 28 September 2009

A $680 million biolab is being constructed in Maryland; people living in the neighborhood told a panel that the military has not fully considered the possibility of a release of deadly germs by a disturbed or disgruntled worker

A $680 million laboratory building under construction at Fort Detrick will likely be safer than the decades-old complex it will replace, an Army biodefense official told a scientific review panel Tuesday.

AP reports that a citizens group critical of the expansion, however, told the National Academy of Sciences panel that the military has not fully considered the possibility of a release of deadly germs by a disturbed or disgruntled worker.

Overshadowing the committee review of the new U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases is the specter of Bruce Ivins, a USAMRIID scientist whom the FBI identified last year as the lone perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax mailings.

Those mailings killed five people and sickened seventeen others. Ivins died of an apparent suicide in July 2008.

Col. Roger Martin, the institute’s deputy director, said the lab has undergone a “cultural change” in recent years focusing on security. “Inherent in everything that we do on a daily basis at USAMRIID is safety,” Martin said, adding that new technology incorporated into the building design “will likely enhance our safety position.”

The safety review was requested by critics who say planners have not adequately considered insider threats to military biolabs. “It is very difficult to effectively mitigate risks that are not even acknowledged,” said Beth Willis, a leader of Frederick Citizens for Bio-lab Safety, in prepared comments.

The review panel plans to hold closed sessions before issuing a report in March. The committee has no enforcement power but the congressionally chartered academy is an influential body.

Fort Detrick is an 800-acre Army installation surrounded by homes and businesses within city limits of Frederick, a community of 59,000 about fifty miles from both Washington and Baltimore.

The Army broke ground last month for the new building to replace facilities built in the 1950s and 1960s. It is expected to be operational in 2015.

The project’s Environmental Impact Statement includes scenarios for accidental releases of viruses and bacteria. It concludes there is no risk to community health from building design factors.

It also found negligible risk to community health from any possible escape of an infected lab animal, natural disasters, fires or a plane crash. The planners acknowledge that terrorist attacks “may be credible, remotely possible threats.”

USAMRIID’s primary mission is developing vaccines, drugs and diagnostic tools for soldiers. Scientists in the new five-story, 800,000-square-foot building also will share information with neighboring labs run by DHS, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services comprising a National Interagency Biodefense campus at Fort Detrick.