The Army has called a public hearing Sept. 19 in Tooele about a controversial document that claims germ warfare research poses no risk to residents or the environment.
That's from the same Army that once said nuclear fallout wasn't dangerous, and also once said - then later recanted - that its chemical arms didn't kill 6,000 sheep in Skull Valley in 1968.Now the Army's draft environmental impact statement on its Biological Defense Research Program says virtually no impact to the environment and public is expected from such germ warfare work as:
- A proposed lab at Dugway Proving Ground that would make aerosols out of the deadliest germs on earth to test such things as face masks and other protective equipment. The Army won't rule out the possibility of also making aerosols out of new, genetically engineered germs that cause diseases without cure.
- Using labs at such colleges as Brigham Young University and Utah State University to do work, including using genetic-engineering techniques to develop new vaccines against deadly germs that cause diseases such as anthrax.
- Continuing open-air tests at Dugway using "simulants," or relatively safe germs that simulate characteristics of more dangerous pathogens, even though evidence exists that those simulants themselves can infect the sick or weak.
Those all are potentially dangerous activities. But the Army report says safety programs provide adequate safeguards. But then again, a Senate committee recently released another report saying those safeguards are dangerously lacking.
That means the Army still has many questions to answer to prove to Utahns that it still doesn't have several bugs - so to speak - to work out of its germ warfare programs. And to ensure the Army research stays on track, a national commission of civilian scientists to oversee the research may be a good idea.
The Army is taking a good first step by holding the hearing at the Tooele Army Depot Theater. The Army originally planned to hold only one hearing on the document, which occurred last month in Virginia. Utah politicians persuaded the Army that the state had so much at stake in the program that another hearing should be held here to help better inform residents of the issues.
The next step is to make the hearing meaningful, and for the Army to seriously consider some of the points raised by Utah scientists and others for months since the Army report was released last spring.
For example, 149 professors and graduate students from the University of Utah signed a petition recently saying Army research may be misguided. They fear that the Army appears to be trying to develop new diseases through genetic engineering, then find ways to protect against them. They say it would be more wise and safe to develop general defenses against a wide array of diseases, not defenses that would be good only against a few specific, exotic ones.
Whatever the answers to such concerns are, Utahns would likely feel more safe if a commission of civilian scientists were formed to oversee Army research to keep it on track and safe. It would help the Army overcome credibility problems, and would allow it to take advantage of the expertise of leading civilians.
No doubt exists that some germ warfare defense research is needed, especially considering 50 nations have not joined treaties banning germ warfare. But concerns for the safety of Utahns demands that it be done safely and responsibly.