After battling for months with Utah politicians, scientists, watchdog groups and the press, the U.S. Army surrendered Monday.
It waved the white flag by dropping plans for a controversial lab at Dugway Proving Ground that could have made aerosols out of genetically engineered germs that cause disease without cure. The aerosols would have tested face masks and germ detectors. Critics worried the lab could start a germ-engineering race or that accidents could decimate nearby Utahns.Most Utah politicians thought the Army's retreat meant they won a war - and in an election year, too. Watchdog groups viewed it as winning only one battle in a continuing struggle. And the Army described its dropping plans for the "bio-safety level 4" lab more as a way to find peace with honor.
The Army lost little, really. It will still be able to perform all the germ warfare defense tests it originally envisioned - but maybe not all of them will occur at Dugway, said Mike Owen, a deputy assistant secretary of the Army in charge of installations and logistics.
The Army still plans to spend about $5 million to renovate Dugway's 36-year-old Baker Lab into a modern "biosafety level 3" facility - the second-safest rating possible. Baker used to be a BL3 lab, but disrepair and remodeling work forced it in recent years into a less-secure BL2 rating.
The planned renovation will allow Baker to still make aerosols out of some of the most deadly germs known to man - which cause such diseases as Q-fever, tularemia, botulism and anthrax. But for use in a BL3 lab, such diseases must have vaccines or cures available.
The Army insists it only planned BL3 work at Dugway anyway and said the BL4 lab was just to improve safety. But critics suspected the Army wanted the BL4 rating to allow work with exotic genetically engineered germs.
Owen said if the Army wants to conduct such BL4 work someday, it could do so at one of five BL4 labs already in existence elsewhere in the nation.
Owen said that negative press reports - such as Deseret News stories in recent months about dangerous practices at Dugway - and pressure from politicians, scientists and the public played a key role in the Army's decision.
"They were not the only determining factors . . . but their impact was important," Owen said. He added that the Army was simply trying to respond to concerns raised by Utahns in earlier hearings.
Most Utah politicians saw the Army decision as cause for celebration and as an end to the war over the controversial lab.
The Army allowed Gov. Norm Bangerter and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, who are both in tough races for re-election, to announce the decision outside the gate of Tooele Army Depot. Their press conference was held there because political announcements on the base itself are prohibited by law during election years.
Bangerter stressed that he was the first Utah politician to oppose plans for the BL4 lab and insisted the Army build only a BL3 lab if it planned only BL3 work. He also said the state will name within days the members of a civilian committee that the Army has agreed to let review Dugway research.
Hansen, who is on the House Armed Forces Committee, had not opposed the BL4 lab strongly - saying many questions about it needed to be answered before it was built.
But he said Monday, "This is a great victory for the state of Utah." He added, "I look at the Army as our good neighbors," and that he feels the Army wants to get along with Utahns and be open with them.
Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, who was a vocal opponent of a BL4 lab and who held congressional hearings about it, praised the Army for its decision. But he is not satisfied the war is over yet. He said he will pursue legislation to put a civilian agency in charge of germ warfare defense research to ensure more openness and trust.
Tooele County Commission Chairman Kelly Gubler - a staunch supporter of the Army's operations in his county - was upset about the whole matter. "I'm sorry the Army did roll over and give into pressure from the media and some politicians." He also told Owens to go "back across the Oquirrhs" where he could "hoodwink the constituents of his own district."
While Owen said the Army's decision about the BL4 lab is final, it still must pass through several steps before it becomes official. The Army plans to release in December a final environmental impact statement with the BL3 lab as its preferred alternative. Then it plans to release a final "record of decision" in February.