A controversial and long-postponed germ warfare defense lab at Dugway Proving Ground now faces more delays - and may have to repeat a lengthy environmental impact review.
A final environmental impact statement for the lab was due this month, but Pentagon Army spokesman Dick Bridges told the Deseret News that the entire process has "been put on hold."Dugway spokeswoman Kathleen Whitaker said it will remain suspended indefinitely while the Army considers several new options for constructing the germ lab.
Such options became available when the Army - under public pressure - recently decided to build a "biosafety level 3" lab instead of a proposed, more exotic "bio-safe-ty level 4" facility.
Because none of the new options is exactly like the original BL4 proposal studied in a draft environmental impact statement released last spring, the Army may have to start the EIS process all over - although it has no firm legal ruling yet, Whitaker said.
Army critics, such as the watchdog group Downwinders' spokesman Steve Erickson, said his organization will insist that public hearings on new lab plans be held and thinks the entire EIS process should begin again.
The Army's most recent plans had been to open the lab by about 1992 - with schedules calling for releasing a final lab EIS this month, formally recording the decision to build the lab next spring, and obtaining funding for it in the 1991 budget.
Depending on which options the Army chooses for the lab and whether a new EIS is needed, construction could be delayed for years.
The lab was originally envisioned with a BL4 rating - the safest possible - to provide the most safety possible while creating aerosols out of deadly germs to test face masks and other equipment. But the high rating potentially allowed work with genetically engineered germs that cause diseases that have no cure, although the Army insisted it had no such plans.
Because of outcry from concerned Utah politicians, scientists and residents, the Army announced in September that it would build only a BL3 lab. The lower safety rating would not legally allow testing with genetically engineered germs.
Whitaker said now that the Army has decided on a BL3 lab, it has many other options about how and where to build it.
The original BL4 facility had to be located in its own, separate building. Its proposed site was in a warehouse behind Dugway's Baker life sciences lab. But the BL3 facility could be built inside Baker lab, she said.
Dugway is also planning to build a new life sciences building to possibly replace the 36-year-old Baker lab. The Army must decide whether it would like to build the BL3 within that new building, near it in a separate facility or somewhere else.
The Army also wonders whether the draft environmental impact statement it wrote for the proposed BL4 facility could merely be updated and released in final form with more information about BL3 options, or whether the EIS process needs to begin again.
"We don't have a firm legal decision yet," Whitaker said.
Erickson said Downwinders feel that because the Army is significantly changing the scope of the project it once proposed, a new EIS is needed. "We think it should be fully rewritten and that public hearings are essential."