By Weiss, Rick
Science News , Vol. 133, No. 7
Biological Warfare Facility Debated
The U.S. Army last week released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for its proposed construction of a controversial, state-of-the-art biological warfare research facility in Utah. The report concludes that there is "no cause for concern" that hazardous biological materials might be inadvertently released from the laboratory. Opponents immediately criticized the report as inadequate and threatened to sue the Army if it tries to go ahead with its plans for the $5.4 million "biological aerosol facility."
The Army's latest report is itself the result of a lawsuit it lost in 1985. In that case, initiated by the Foundation on Economic Trends, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest group, a U.S. District Court ruled that the Army's original environmental assessment did not sufficiently address the potential risks of operating such a facility (SN: 6/8/85, p.359). The tightly sealed lab, which the Army says is to be used for defensive research only, is designed to perform tests on highly toxic aerosols.
"This is a situation that's every bit as dangerous as a Three Mile Island or a Chernobyl," Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, told SCIENCE NEWS. "Unless there's a radical change in their thinking between now and the final EIS, we will relitigate."
The Army plans to release its final environmental impact statement in August after public hearings are held near the government's Dugway Proving Ground, where the lab would be built. The site is about 70 miles from Salt Lake City and has long served as a center for chemical warfare research. According to the draft report, Dugway's arid climate, low winds and low population density make it an ideal site for the proposed facility.
According to Rifkin, however, "There's a whole range of really critical environmental questions that are not even dealt with in a perfunctory fashion." He says the EIS "doesn't deal at all with mass evacuation, mass quarantine or emergency medical treatment." An accidental release of nerve gas from the proving ground killed 6,000 sheep in 1968.
Kathy Whitaker, an Army spokesperson at Dugway, says the scope of the EIS is limited to a discussion of "reasonably foreseeable events." She notes that according to the Army report, the only significant risk at the new facility is of a worker becoming accidentally infected and leaving the lab. …