Dugway Proving Ground has won approval of a joint federal-state biological safety committee to resume testing of pathogens in defensive germ-warfare experiments.
Meanwhile, citing threats to national security, the Pentagon has turned down a military watchdog group's request for information about frozen pathogens stored at the base, which is in the western desert of Tooele County.The safety committee included officials from the state's Public Health Laboratory, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and the infectious diseases and preventive medicine departments of Denver's Fitzsimons Army Hospital. Committee members toured the refurbished Baker Laboratory last week, concluding that tests could be resumed there.
Testing ended in 1985. Since then the Army has spent millions of dollars upgrading the laboratory. Col. Frank Cox, Dugway's commander, recently said testing of micro-organisms would resume in about a month if the committee approved.
If any member of the biosafety committee had a serious reservation about the safety of a proposed test, Dugway would take action to correct the perceived lapse or satisfy the expert who had the question, said Dugway spokesman Dick Whitaker.
"Every question that was brought up was answered to their satisfaction," said Whitaker of the group's meeting last week. "As a matter of fact, it went off just really well."
Cox and Whitaker will be joined Thursday by Gary Resnick, chief of Dugway's Life Sciences Division, as they brief the state's Citizens Advisory Committee on Dugway about the approval. But something they almost certainly won't tell the citizens committee is the name of the pathogens stored in Dugway's refrigerator.
Downwinders, a group that keeps tabs on military activity in Utah, had requested a list of the pathogens. It has now received a notice from the Pentagon that the information won't be given.
"The listing of biological defense holdings at Dugway Proving Ground is classified secret," wrote Col. Allan D. Robb, acting director of the Army's Space and Special Weapons Section in Washington, D.C.
"The listing contains information from which military plans, weapons, operations, capabilities of systems, vulnerabilities, and scientific, technological or economic information relating to the national security of the United States could be derived."
The letter added: "Release of the information could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the national security of the United States."
Steve Erickson, spokesman for Downwinders, said the Army has stated repeatedly that the biological defense program is open and unclassified. "They said this to reassure the public and to promote new germ warfare developments," he said.
"This response to know the contents of `Pandora's icebox' puts a lie to the claims of openness."
Downwinders will appeal the refusal for two reasons, Erickson said. "First, it's important to public health officials and physicians to know if `Pandora's icebox' contains genetically engineered germ warfare agents that would be resistant to commercially available drug therapies, so that if someone, somehow, gets infected, carries that infection off-site, medical professionals will know what they're dealing with.
"Secondly, it is a violation of the Biological Weapons Convention - perhaps the most important and effective treaty ever inked by the United States government - to stockpile germ warfare agent. Dugway has assured the public that there is no stockpile of agent, and that they are only storing research quantities.
"But with this blanket of secrecy thrown over all stored agent, we can't judge."