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Fort Polk: Biological training won't endanger public

Oct. 4, 2000
By Mandy Maxwell
Staff reporter
FORT POLK -- Proposed biological training at Fort Polk is "safe for the people and safe for Louisiana," Army officials and scientists said Tuesday. Army officials' defense of the proposed training is in response to what they said are "inaccurate reports" circulating about a biological training exercise that includes spraying benign bacterial spores so soldiers can practice detecting. It simulates battlefield situations, officials said.

After the Army published a public notice last month announcing the exercise, rumors have been rampant about whether the exercise could be dangerous to the public. An unofficial hearing was conducted Tuesday night in DeRidder to discuss concerns.

Official public hearings will be scheduled for Leesville and Lafayette concerning the proposed training.

"I live here in Louisiana with everyone else, and I would never have training conducted on this facility that would endanger soldiers and civilians," Brig. Gen. Charles Swannack said Tuesday.

The proposed training involves spraying a stimulant into the air so that members of the 7th Chemical Company can train using the Biological Integrated Detection System, known as BIDS.

BIDS is a stationary detection laboratory that detects, collects and identifies biological hazards in the air.

"This is the most realistic training that we can provide our soldiers, and it is important to this country to have our soldiers trained to the best of our ability," Swannack said.

The controversial stimulant is a dead form of Bacillus subtilis, a spore that has properties similar to anthrax, but that is "no way near anthrax," said Dr. Richard Hidalgo, Louisiana State University professor of veterinary microbiology and parasitology.

The Army wanted a chemical similar to anthrax because of its potential use against U.S. soldiers in combat.

Hidalgo said the spore was the safest material available with similar properties to anthrax.

It is a spore that can be found in water, dirt and more than likely "could be dusted off your skin" after walking outside, Hidalgo said.

Swannack said the base had planned to use egg whites for the training but found it was safer to use the dead spore because so many people are allergic to egg whites.

The post conducted environmental studies, which concluded that the spore would have "no substantial impact" on humans or the environment.

The spores would be released in three areas at Fort Polk from backpacks that resemble leaf blowers during times when wind speed and direction would assure it would not reach areas off of the base.

At no time would the spore be dropped onto the training area from helicopters or airplanes, Swannack said.

Capt. Brenda Jacinto, former commander of the 7th Chemical Company, said the spores would be sprayed and travel 400 to 800 meters before they would fall "back to the ground where they came from." Pfc. Kevin Owen and SSgt. Ronnell Sharpley are members of the 7th Chemical Company. Both men have families living on post, and both agree they would not participate in any training that would endanger their lives or the lives of their families.

"I would not do anything that would harm my family," Owen said. "We need the realistic training in order to be prepared to go into battle. This machine can possibly save the lives of thousands of soldiers, and I want to know before going into combat that in realistic conditions that it is going to work properly." The BIDS training could start as early as December 2000 but will likely begin January 2001. Training could be held 12 times a year but will likely occur four or five times a year at Fort Polk.

Fort Polk has never trained using the spore, officials said, but Bacillus subtilis has been used at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah and at Fort McClellan, Ala.

Owen said the 7th Chemical Company worked with the spore at Fort McClellan, and none of the soldiers became ill or have become sick since that time.

Despite the Army's insistence that the training is safe, there are those who have doubts.

Swannack said Fort Polk has received around 40 inquiries about the proposed training.

Fort Polk officials and experts will attend the public hearings, whose dates and times have not been determined.

"Concerns among the community exist, and citizens have a right to have concerns," he said. "All I can say is that this is necessary training and safe training for Fort Polk and the surrounding communities." Swannack admitted that Fort Polk might not have publicized the proposed training enough, but the public notice was published and the comment period has been extended to Oct. 20.

"This is not biological testing," Swannack said. "This is using a benign spore to train. The Army is the best caretaker of the environment." Reporter Mandy Maxwell's e-mail address is mmaxwell@thetowntalk.com

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