Building 2026 at Dugway Proving Ground looks as bland as its name: an empty, prefabricated steel warehouse surrounded by weeds. Until Monday afternoon, Army critics worried that the apocalypse would begin there.
Building 2026 was the proposed site of a lab that would create aerosols out of deadly germs to test defensive equipment. Critics worried the Army might even test genetically engineered germs that cause diseases without cure--which could potentially release hideous new illnesses on the earth by accident.
The Army dropped plans for the lab on Monday after public pressure - so the apocalypse won't begin in Building 2026. But the Army could move the research elsewhere, meaning issues raised by the proposed lab are not yet dead.
As Army officials pointed out Monday, the nation has five other "biosafety level 4" labs where genetically engineered germs could be aerosolized legally.
The Army said it has no plans for such testing now. Critics are not sure.
Adding to critics' worries is information obtained by recent Deseret News requests and by other authors that suggest Army lab work at Dugway may have alreadyreleased diseases not seen before in Utah, and that the Army has not always been the most concerned about safety in its lab work.
Deseret News information requests revealed that within the past 10 years, Dugway's Baker Lab -- a 36-year-old building that officials say is not as safe or modern as they would like -- has used such disease-causing germs as Francisella tularensis (which causes tularemia), Coxiella burnetii (which causes Q-fever). Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis virus (VEE) and T2 toxin (which Dugway scientists say is suspected to be a key component of yellow rain).
The Army said all such germs (except T2 toxin) were aerosolized in special containment chambers at the older facilities at Baker Lab. Exactly what types of agents were used and possibly aerosolized before 1978 has not been released.
Baker Lab for years was considered a "biosafety level 3" lab _ the second-safest possible _ which allowed it to work with "highly pathogenic" germs.
But general disrepair forced some remodeling work that began in April 1985, after which all BL3 work at Baker was suspended. Work since was supposed to have been at a BL2 level allowing work with only "moderately pathogenic" germs.
While the Army says precautions at the lab were sufficient to contain germs, some critics question that claim.
For example, the new book "Germ Wars" by Charles Piller and Keith Yamamoto says congressional hearings in 1969 revealed that animalson private farms near Dugway had been exposed to Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis (VEE), a disease the book said had not been seen before in this country outside Florida and Louisiana. VEE has been used in tests at Dugway's Baker Lab butnot in open-air tests there.
Some people, such as Steve Erickson, spokesman for the watchdog group Downwinders, question whether VEE or some ouher Dugway test organism may have had a role in the mysterious death of 50 wild horses near Orr Springs on the Dugway Proving Ground in 1976.
A report by the state veterinarian, obtained recently by the Deseret News, concluded that most of the horses died from thirst _ even though they were around a new and full water trough that had been installed just days before when the muddy springs were boxed and piped. The report said the horses may have avoided the trough because it was new and strange. Some may have been weakened by traveling from a distant spring that had gone dry.
Doubting the report's conclusion is Richard Sewing, a director of the National Mustang Association based in Newcastle, Iron County. He said his group has piped several springs similarly and, "We've never had an experience any place where the horses backed away from the water. So I would tend to think something else killed them."
Therefore, Erickson with Downwinders said he wonders whether VEE _ a disease that has especially affected horses _ or something similar was the real culprit in the deaths, even though autopsies reportedly showed no viral infections.
Also, an article in this week's The Nation by Charles Piller says documents released through the Freedom of Information Act say the Army is unsure whether deadly Q fever existed in the environment around Dugway until after it was used in lab and open-air tests there.
Piller said Army documents even say, "The disease unquestionably reached (epidemic) proportions in the wildlife in 1959 and 1960." Because Q fever was then well established in the environment, reports suggested that further testing would do no harm.
Such history makes critics _ such as 144 University of Utah scientists who signed a petition against the BL4 lab _ contend that the mere request for a BL4 lab is evidence that the Army may plan to work with genetically engineered germs.
Scoffing at them is I. Gary Resnick, director of life sciences at Dugway. He said Dugway scientists wanted the proposed lab only to better ensure safety and provide state-of-the-art equipment instead of 1950s-era machinery.
"What upsets me about critics is they complain that we aren't safe enough. But when we propose something like the BL4 lab to increase safety, they take a 180-degree turn and say we shouldn't have it because we might be tempted to use it for something exotic. They can't have it both ways," he said.
Other evidence suggesting that the Army wants to conduct research with genetically engineered germs comes from the 1988 edition of the Defense Department's "Soviet Military Power: An Assessment of the Threat."
It says, "The Soviets have achieved considerable progress in biological technologies such as genetic engineering. They may now be developing a new generation of chemical and biological agents using this technology." It does not say whether the United States is retaliating with similar research.
Another sign that the Army may have been up to something covert, according to Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., is the way it tried to originally obtain funding for the once-proposed Dugway lab.
The Army tried to quietly obtain lab funding by including it in a reallocation request to fund such otherwise minor projects as parking garages and military housing. That request was originally approved by the chairmen and ranking minority members of congressional subcommittees on military construction.
But Sen. Jim Sasser, D-Tenn., later angrily rescinded his approval, complaining bitterly to former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger that the facility could be used to test offensive biologic weapons in violation of international treaties.
Rifkin's group soon thereafter sued to force the military to prepare an environmental impact statement on the lab. Hearings on it earlier this year produced the public pressure that led to the Army on Monday to drop plans for the BL4 lab at Dugway, and stopping the possible apocalypse from beginning there.