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HMMWV designed to detect biological agents.

HMMWV designed to detect biological agents.

Fear in Louisiana over Biological Agent Test

Oct 23, 2000
Dave Eberhart
Stars and Stripes Veterans Affairs Editor

In Louisiana, the towns of Deridder and Leesville are known primarily for their proximity to Fort Polk, the home of the Army's Joint Readiness Training Center. Relations between the 199,000-acre base and surrounding civilian community have long been excellent - until now.

But when the Department of Defense announced quietly in the back notice pages of the Beauregard Daily News on Aug. 26 that it planned to spray a biological agent in an "urban" test of bio-agent detection hardware, the long ties of friendship began to unravel.

Residents who read the fine print quickly began to challenge the Army's plan. Dan Nance, the post's deputy public affairs officer, soon had his hands full.

Today, a growing number of the post's civilian neighbors are angry over the way the Army has handled both the proposed spraying and the concerns voiced by nearby residents.

"We are really disgusted with the Army," said Kathy McDaniel, a local resident-turned-activist. "They have told us it does not matter at this point how many phone calls against the testing or how many letters against the testing they receive."

McDaniel told The Stars and Stripes Oct. 23 that the Army has only gone through the motions of sharing information about the tests and has said it intends to begin the spraying by the end of the year. "If that was their attitude all along why did they bother posting the notice and why did they bother extending the comment period?" she asked.

Opponents of the spraying say they were upset the Army did only the minimum required to inform them of the test. "I needed a magnifying glass to read it," McDaniel said of the newspaper notice.

After the notice was published and the controversy began to grow, Fort Polk officials circulated copies of the environmental assessment document to local libraries. The Army also posted factsheets and other information on the Fort Polk internet website.

Fort Polk is the home of the 7th Chemical Co., a specialized Army unit set up to detect the presence of biological agents. Its primary equipment is the Biological Integrated Detection System, a Humvee-mounted suite of sensors that can detect and identify the type of biological agent and its concentration in the atmosphere. The system was developed on an expedited basis after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when U.S. officials learned the extent to which Iraq had developed and "weaponized" biological warfare agents, including anthrax.

The Environmental Assessment document, available at local libraries, portrayed the planned Fort Polk tests as benign:

  "The proposed training activity poses virtually no risks to human health or the environment. It involves the use of a simulated biological agent so that soldiers of the 7th Chemical Company can train with the Biological Integrated Detection System (BIDS) .... "

"The simulant 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. This substance has been tested extensively and is not considered toxic to humans, plants or animals.

"This simulant has been used at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, for more than 40 years and at Fort McClellan, Alabama, for over six years under conditions similar to those proposed at Fort Polk. During the period of use, no environmental or health effects have been documented at those installations.

"The release of the simulant poses virtually no risk to the public or environment. It would be released in water in an aerosol spray through an agriculture-type sprayer to allow the BIDS system operating in the vicinity to detect the simulated agent. The only effect it will have will be to trigger a response in the BIDS system.

"The spores to be used would be irradiated with gamma radiation rendering it dead before it arrived at Fort Polk. The use of gamma radiation is a common sterilization process used by the food industry to make food safer and by the medical industry for instrument sterilization. Spores will then be tested to insure that the radiation procedure was effective and that the spores are in fact dead.

"Only three areas at Fort Polk will be used for this training and it will only be conducted in weather conditions favorable to prevent off-post drift of the release. This training would occur only 12 times a year .... "

The factsheet did not quell a growing concern over the safety of the proposal, and a number of curious and still wary citizens began to do their own investigation.

One concern was that the troops spraying a supposedly "dead" spore would be outfitted with level-4 "MOPP" gear, the Pentagon's term for the highest level of protective clothing and gas masks.

Readily available medical references revealed the fact that Bacillus subtilis can cause upper respiratory distress and provoke an attack of conjunctivitis (an inflammation of the eye).

And this particular bacterium was not something right off nature's shelf, either. Army officials now admit the spray to be used has been genetically altered.

And how could anyone guarantee that the spores would stay on the base, the activists argue. Not even the Army can control the prevailing winds, they contend.

The testing at Folk Polk is now scheduled to begin in Jan. 2001.

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