Pssst. Don't tell anyone, because most people don't realize this. But the Army says it has virtually no secrets when it comes to the proposed lab at Dugway Proving Ground to test defenses against germ warfare.
The Army hopes such openness will convince Utahns to believe its assertions that the lab poses no "reasonably foreseeable" danger.The Army has even gone the extra mile recently to put some substance behind claims of openness by answering questions about Dugway operations that it probably would rather ignore.
For example, Dugway recently admitted that it doesn't know what old arms and wastes may be buried there, and it provided recent, somewhat embarrassing Air Force maps that say some Dugway areas are "permanently contaminated" by biologic agents despite conflicting Army statements that they are now clean.
When it comes to possible adverse effects to the public from the lab, Dugway spokesman Kathleen Whitaker says the Army now is required by the Environmental Protection Act to fully inform the public of all reasonably expected impacts. "Very little regarding the lab and the tests we do is classified," she said.
In fact, Col. Wyett H. Colclasure II, director of Dugway's Materiel Test Directorate, said the results of only one test at Dugway since 1980 have been classified. That was because it exposed a weakness in U.S. defenses. However, the procedure used in that test was not classified.
The Army hopes such openness will make the public more apt to believe that the myriad precautions planned for the lab are sufficient protection.
For example, the lab, as now proposed, would have a "biosafety level 4," the highest possible. The Army said that would provide the best available containment of germs used to test such things as new face masks and sensors.
It says it plans to do only biosafety level 3 testing there meaning vaccines or cures are available for diseases caused by germs to be tested.
But the Army admits as critics and politicians, including Gov. Norm Bangerter, fear that BL4 work with germs that cause diseases without cure could be performed there, but would require further environmental study first.
Recent public pressure, however, has caused Army officials to re-examine in the Pacific, or putting only a level 3 lab at Dugway.
The 20-by-60 foot lab would contain specially designed cabinets to hold germs. Exhaust air from the lab would go through a sequence of filters to catch or burn errant germs. If sensors beyond those filters find any biologic agent particles, they automatically stop the aerosolizing of germs during testing.
Wastes would be sanitized in an autoclave before removal from the lab. Depending on the level of work being done, workers could wear astronaut-like suits with their own air supply systems that would be removed and incinerated to ensure germs do not spread.
Emergency "acid showers" to wash away contamination also would be provided. Workers would also be immunized against agents with which they would be required to work. Also, only small amounts about 3 fluid ounces of concentrated solutions with germ agents would be used, lessening the likelihood of spreading.
The Army's environmental impact statement said the only means of releasing germs that it cannot eliminate is through a lab-acquired infection by a worker. But it said studies have not shown that such situations lead to infections of a worker's family.
The Army also says the chance of a lab worker being infected is 1 per 550 person years of work in the facility.
The Army points out that tests would occur only during daylight hours because sunlight has been shown to kill many of the agents being tested. Also the remote location of the lab would help prevent spreading of any germ agents.