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Official: Fort Polk biological training poses no threat

By SHAWN MARTIN
AMERICAN PRESS

FORT POLK — U.S. Army officials say the public's fears over use of a simulated biological agent for training are unfounded.

The public can comment on the use of the agent — Bacillus subtilis — until Oct. 6. Those comments can be made to the Fort Polk Public Affairs Office, 7073 Radio Road, Fort Polk, LA 71459-5342.

A federally mandated environmental assessment has been completed for use of the agent at Fort Polk for training purposes and found there is no "significant impact," according to Fort Polk spokesman Dan Nance.

If allowed, this would be the first time such an agent has been at Fort Polk. The biological agent has been used at Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah, for more than 40 years and at Fort McClellan, Ala., for the past six years.

Nance said there have been no documented health or environmental problems at either of the installations where the agent is being used.

"The proposed training with a simulated biological agent possess virtually no health risks to humans or to the environment," he said. "There is no reason for public concern. This is a common form of bacteria, and it is dead."

The environmental assessment, which has been in the works for several month, will closed at the end of the public comment period.

Nance said training, if allowed, is not expected to begin until early 2001.

Only three areas of Fort Polk will be used for the proposed training for the 7th Chemical Co. The use of the agent is so the unit can train using the Biological Integrated Detection System, which is an air monitoring system mounted on a HUMVEE.

The BIDS is designed to provide early detection of biological hazards.

Nance said that the agent to be used is a dead form of the bacterium Bacillus subtilis — a non-pathogenic bacterium commonly found in soils, water and decomposing plant residue.

Army scientists have conducted numerous tests on the agent and do not consider it toxic to humans, plants or animals.

When used, the agent would be released in water in an aerosol spray through an agriculture-type sprayer, not aircraft, to allow the BIDS operating in the area to detect it. The only effect it will have will be to trigger a response in the BIDS.

"This training must be realistic in order for the unit to maintain its level of readiness," Nance said. "It is a realistic scenario but it's completely safe."

The spores to be used would be irradiated with gamma radiation rendering it dead before it arrived at Fort Polk.

Gamma radiation is a common sterilization process used by the food industry to make food safer and by the medical industry for instrument sterilization, Nance said.

Training will only be conducted in weather conditions favorable to prevent off-post drift of the release.

Training can occur up to 12 times a year, but it will likely be only four to six times each year, Nance said.

The unit has prepared a detailed standard operating procedure to govern the use of the agent and assure that training is conducting under appropriate guidelines and conditions.

The mission of the 7th, which is the U.S. Army's only active duty biological detection unit, is to conduct biological surveillance operations. It consists of five platoons totaling approximately 180 soldiers and 35 vehicles with trailers.

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