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Biological Weapons Research and Development Pose Risks Worldwide

from the Sunshine Project: (Note that such work may transgress the biological Weapons Convention, an international treaty initiated by the Nixon admnistration, to which the US is a party.

Army to Triple Germ War Tests in UT

Biological Weapons Research and Development Pose Risks Worldwide
by Steve Erickson

At a remote, secretive desert base 75 miles west of Salt Lake City, the Army plans to renovate an historic cold war laboratory to expand dramatically its biological warfare testing.

The US Army proposes to completely rehab the drab Baker Laboratory, a centerpiece of the Dugway Proving Ground (DPG) since 1952. The lab is listed on the National Historic Register not for its architecture but for its role in testing germ war agents both in sealed chambers and in the field. DPG itself has been the nation's premier biological and chemical warfare testing facility since the end of World War II.

Gearing up Dugway's bio-warfare testing activities is part and parcel of the Bush Administration' s massive post 9-11 build up of the military and bio-defense business, including the proliferation of new BSL-4 and BSL-3 labs across the country. Billions of dollars have been spent in the past five years in bio-defense research, much of it at the nation's premier research universities. This build up of bio- defense capacity has gone largely unnoticed by the public and mainstream press, except on the east and west coasts, where proposed new labs in Boston and at the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons lab have generated controversy and strong opposition.

The renovated Baker lab will contain "as many as eleven Bio Safety Level-3 laboratories and fourteen Biological Safety Level-2 laboratories, " according to the recently released Environmental Assessment. This will approximately triple Dugway's current BSL-3 lab capacity and double its BSL-2 capabilities to meet increased demand from the Defense Department and its contractors for testing detection and protective equipment against some of the world's deadliest pathogens.

Safety levels of labs are defined by their engineered precautions. A BSL-2 lab can handle viruses and bacteria common in the environment. BSL-3 labs are equipped and permitted to work with the deadly and traditional bio-weapons pathogens for which there are either vaccines or cures, such as anthrax. BSL-4 labs are the Cadillac-they can test the most deadly pathogens for which there is no prevention, no cure. Think Ebola, Marburg.

The crown jewel of the refurbished lab at Dugway would be the Whole System Live Agent Test chamber (WSLAT). It would be capable of testing large equipment like nuclear, biological and chemical agent detection vehicles against relatively huge quantities of aerosolized live agent, presenting possibly increased risks to lab personnel and the environment beyond those previously assessed by DPG for small chamber live agent testing.

Concerns about this facility are heightened by its large capacity, industrial strength chamber, coupled with the recent solicitations by DPG for two 1,500-liter fermenters and for 1,500 liters of Anthrax sterne var. Since the Army denied Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by the Citizens Education Project, a local grassroots organization leading the opposition to Dugway's expansion, it is not known whether new fermenters and large quantities of this non- pathenogenic form of anthrax were ever delivered to Dugway. Dugway did admit in 2002 that it has been secretly producing quantities of germ agents like the deadlier strains of anthrax after two decades of denying live agent production.

History and Context of Bioweapons

As Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project points out, biological weapons are nearly as old as war. In Roman times, wells were poisoned. Two hundred years ago in North America, the British Army attacked Native Americans by using smallpox-infected blankets. In World War II, the Japanese Army used bioweapons on a large scale in China. This list continues, and current technological advances increase the risk drastically.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said in 2005 that bioterrorism is "the greatest existential threat we have in the world today" and called for a biodefense research and development effort that "even dwarfs the Manhattan Project." Others see the risk posed by governments and militaries engaged in biological weapons "defense" as at least as dangerous. The boundary between offensive biological warfare or terrorist programs and biological defense can be quite murky.

To address the threat of offensive bioweapons, in 1972 countries agreed to the the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which bans the development or production of biological agents for non- peaceful purposes. Recently, US military officials have called for a renegotiation of the BTWC to enable the development of gas-guzzling bacteria to curtail an enemy's mobility (by eating up their gasoline or attacking drug-producing plants).

Moreover, verification of the BTWC is especially difficult because bioweapons research is beset with the problem of dual-use technology. Nearly all the know-how and equipment necessary for an offensive biological warfare program has applicability to civilian medical or biological research. A very thin line separates offense and defense bioweapons research. Also biodefense research can be problematic as in many cases defensive work generates an offensive capability.

History of Dugway

The Dugway Proving Ground has played a central part in the research and development of bioweapons, in part because of its geographic location. Framed by the 11,000-foot Stansbury Mountains on the east, the 12,000-foot Deep Creeks on the west and the alkali salt flats of the Great Salt Lake desert to the north, Dugway is a restricted military reservation covering some 800,000 acres, roughly the size of Rhode Island, in the Utah portion of the Great Basin. It's a harsh environment with very little rainfall, sparsely populated. Though starkly beautiful with vast vistas and clear skies, some might consider the area desolate and useless. For these reasons, the area has long attracted a wide variety of hazardous industries and military activities, including the testing of weapons of mass destruction.

Dugway is surrounded by two chemical weapons incinerators one mountain range to the east, a radioactive waste dump, an Air Force bombing range, a hazardous waste landfill, and a hazardous waste incinerator to the north. The airspace above is home to supersonic and electronic warfare training.

Established in 1942 to host World War II training and weapons development, Dugway's history is not a pretty one. A German village at Dugway was used to determine how best to use incendiary bombs to fire bomb Dresden and other German cities. Japan village was used to perfect flame throwers to combat Japanese soldiers hunkered in Pacific island caves.

After the War, the mission gradually evolved into the testing of chemical, biological and radiological weapons, as Dugway emerged as the center for open air testing for the Army's Test and Evaluation Command (TECOM). Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Dugway conducted over 1,000 open air chemical weapons tests with GB, VX and mustard agents, over 200 open air biological weapons tests involving a potpourri of pathogens. Not to be ignored, nearly two dozen open air radiological tests, most involving radioactive tantalum but also using radioactive Cobalt 60 on at least one occasion, were also conducted.

Many of these tests involved human participants - civilian workers and military personnel - and some used military volunteers in what can only be described as human experimentation. Seventh Day Adventists volunteered for Operation Whitecoat. In one Whitecoat test performed at Dugway, Adventist volunteers sat on a hillside with their shirts off waiting to be bit by infected mosquitos released by Dugway to determine the effectiveness of using insects as vectors to deliver biological weapons.

The cavalier, cowboy-style of WMD testing came under intense scrutiny when, in 1968, over 6,000 sheep in the Skull Valley bordering Dugway died grisly deaths from VX nerve gas released from Dugway. Although initially denying any involvement, the Army finally acknowledged their guilt at the end of the Clinton Administration.

The sheep incident, followed three years later by the ratification of the Biological Weapons Convention, signaled an end to much of the outdoor testing of actual agent. Tests with actual agent were moved inside secure laboratories. In the late 1980s, Dugway proposed construction of a Bio-Safety Level 4 lab-the Biological Aerosol Test Facility-to replace the aging Baker Lab. Concerns about Dugway playing with the deadliest of pathogens and possibly genetically engineering them in the secrecy of the desert created a huge outcry, and the Army was forced to abandon the plan after an eight-month campaign by the opposition. To our knowledge, this was the first or only time that a grass roots citizen movement stopped a biological weapons development. Nonetheless, Dugway succeeded three years later, under the cover of the first Gulf War with Iraq, to re-open the Baker Lab, and later won approval for a BSL 3-plus lab, the Lothar Solomon Life Sciences Test Facility adjacent to the Baker facility, which is now the key bio-defense research facility at Dugway.

Current Dugway Development ProposalsThe proposed make-over of the Baker Lab is part of plans approved three years ago to more than double Dugway's biological defense activities, double its chemical defense program, and create a new counter-terrorism training mission. This massive expansion of Dugway's role involves at least seven new facilities and renovations of three others. It's a troubling, dangerous and destabilizing development which will take place with the extraordinary secrecy that is the hallmark of Dugway's modus operandi. Given their track record, this expansion is not to be trusted.

The trust level isn't improving. FOIA requests for a list of all the pathogens that Dugway maintains in its inventory-stored in what we refer to as Pandora's Icebox-have gone unanswered for years. The Army refuses to provide us, the press, and the public any information whatsoever regarding the Dugway's assistance in the botched FBI investigation into the anthrax letter attacks of the fall of 2001. Dugway itself was under suspicion as the source for the highly milled Ames strain of anthrax, but cooperated with the FBI by "reverse engineering" the strain of anthrax that they may have been the source of in the first place. More recently, Dugway has been in the forefront of experiments releasing Sodium hexafluoride gas (SF 6) in major metropolitan areas like New York City and Salt Lake City to assess flow patterns that might occur in a major biological weapons attack against a US city.

Opposition to DPG Expansion Mounts

Dugway's expansion has been well under the radar. That's deliberate, says Bev White, a former Utah State Representative and organizer for the Dugway League, seeking justice for the victims and survivors of Dugway's past testing. "They do what they want out there, then claim they never did it, and now they just wait until all the witnesses are dead," she said. "They're all sick and dying. Just like the Atomic Vets and Nevada Test Site workers - no justice, no compensation for their service and sacrifice. Their stories must not be forgotten."

Groups like the Citizens Education Project (CEP) in Salt Lake City have worked to shine a light on the proposed expansion. CEP has repeatedly used the Freedom of Information Act to acquire information about the Army's plans, publicizes the information it does receive, and works with coalitions nationally and internationally.

Greater transparency and oversight of biological agent research at Dugway and throughout the country, and a renewed US commitment to strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention are critical to preventing potentially disastrous releases of pathogens and to stemming proliferation of bio-weapons.

Steve Erickson is the director of the Citizens Education Project. For more information, contact CEP, 444 Northmont Way, Salt Lake City, UT 84103