Plans for a long-delayed and controversial germ-warfare defenses lab at Dugway Proving Ground have been taken off hold and again are proceeding full speed ahead, the Pentagon announced Wednesday.
Lt. Col. Dick Bridges, Army spokesman, said plans for the lab have changed somewhat again and will require some new environmental review before they are made final. But that review could be completed as early as this summer - with construction possible soon thereafter if all problems are resolved.Plans for the lab were put on hold late last summer after heavy public opposition forced the Army to scrap plans for a "bio-safety level 4" lab, which could have made aerosols out of genetic-engineered germs that produce diseases without cure.
The Army said it never planned such exotic work and said it would build instead a "biosafety level 3" lab - which would not legally allow the more dangerous research that concerned politicians and residents.
But when it changed plans, the Army was unsure whether it would have to repeat the draft environmental impact statement that took years to prepare for the proposed BL4 lab, which was originally proposed in 1984. Critics such as the watchdog group Downwinders contended that it must be entirely rewritten because BL3 facilities would have less security built in than a BL4.
Bridges said the Army now plans to combine its controversial germ lab, officially called the Biological Aerosol Test Facility (BATF), with a planned new Life Sciences Lab at Dugway.
That new Life Sciences Lab already was planned to have many of the same types of protective BL3 chambers as the smaller germ lab - but not the actual chamber where aerosols would be made out of germs to test face masks and other equipment.
Bridges said the Army felt it could save money by combining the facilities and avoid duplicating many of the same chambers. "Exactly what the savings would be is way too early to tell."
The problem comes, however, with the different types of environmental review conducted for the two different facilities.
"There is an environmental assessment already done on the Life Sciences Lab. And, of course, there is the (more detailed) draft environmental impact statement on the BATF. New environmental documentation is going to be required. There are several options, and I don't want to pin us down to doing one or the other.
"It's possible we could do a supplement to the existing environmental assessment for the Life Sciences Lab, it is possible to do a supplement to the draft environmental impact statement for the BATF and it's possible we could do an entirely new draft environmental impact statement," Bridges said.
"I don't foresee a decision coming on this action until the absolute earliest being this summer," he added.
"Trying to look at the redesign of the facility at the present time is simply a precursor to that decision. If we're going to do an environmental assessment, we need to show some folks what the facility is going to look like."
The Army earlier this year projected that its 1991 budget request would include $2 million for the BATF and $13.6 million for the new Life Sciences Lab.
Bridges said appropriations from Congress for the money are good for six years and project authorizations are good for two years. So the Army would have plenty of time to adequately address environmental concerns and still ask for the money next year.