Utah politicians and arms protesters won a minor victory Friday against the U.S. Army when it announced a public hearing in Utah on a controversial document about research to develop defenses against germ warfare.
The Army had planned only one hearing on a recently released draft environmental impact statement, which claimed that the Army's germ research posed virtually no threat to the environment. The one scheduled hearing was last month in Alexandria, Va.But Utah politicians including Gov. Norm Bangerter, Salt Lake City Mayor Palmer DePaulis, Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, and even the Legislature's Health Interim Committee pleaded with the Army to hold hearings in the state.
They argued that Utah has more than passing interest in the document because its Dugway Proving Ground is where germ warfare defenses are tested. Also, both Utah State University and Brigham Young University have Army germ research contracts and perform such work trying to improve vaccines.
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, said the Army told him the Utah hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. at the post theatre at Tooele Army Depot. He said the Army has also extended the public comment period on the draft environmental impact statement until Oct. 4.
Hansen said he felt Utah citizens need to know what the entire biological warfare program is about. He added that Utah is in "a unique position to offer a productive contribution to the Army's overall defense research efforts."
Several groups locally have criticized the Army document's finding that the germ research poses no realistic environmental threat. Some - such as a group of 144 University of Utah professors who signed a petition - also say the document shows Army research may be headed in dangerous directions.
Those professors claim that Army plans for a new "biosafety level 4" lab at Dugway could lead to making aerosols out of genetically engineered germs that cause diseases without cure or vaccine to test face masks and other protective equipment.
The Army said it has no plans for such tests now, but admits they are possible if the lab is built. The professors worry such tests could lead to dangerous new weapons and a possible genetic-engineered germ race. They say the Army should test defenses with safer germ "simulants" rather than actual dangerous disease-causing germs.
Steve Erickson, spokesman for the government watchdog group Downwinders, which had organized efforts pushing for a Utah hearing, said he was glad that a hearing was finally being held - but complained that the Tooele depot theater is not convenient to a majority of concerned Utahns.
"If they are going to hold the hearing in Utah, they might as well hold it somewhere where people could participate," he said. "But we're happy they are holding a hearing. It indicates that once in awhile a little public pressure helps."