Just when it was starting to look like Utahns could feel better about the proposed new germ warfare lab at Dugway, a new source of concern has arisen.
Utahns were justified in breathing a limited sigh of relief when the Army released a reasonably reassuring environmental impact statement Thursday on the effects of the laboratory. Wisely, the Army also acceded to Utahns' demands for a citizens advisory panel to oversee operations of the lab.But then a Senate subcommittee released a report that can't help but revive Utahns' misgivings even though the study doesn't focus on the proposed new lab at Dugway but encompasses the military's overall germ and chemical warfare research programs.
Such programs, the 18-month investigation chillingly concludes, are not adequately protecting their employees and the public from the accidental release of deadly diseases and nerve agents.
Though the Army responded by insisting that such dangers have been greatly exaggerated and that the research efforts pose no significant threat, it will take more than such bland generalities to be reassuring. Instead, the Pentagon will have to be more specific if it is to counter such disturbing findings from the Senate panel as these:
- Only 10 percent of the Pentagon's germ warfare contracts, involving genetic engineering, impose specific, federal safety requirements.
- For the remaining 90 percent, contractors appear "to be under no legal obligation to possess the proper facilities" for containing infectious viruses, to monitor laboratory areas and workers for viral contamination, or to "decontaminate facilities when research is complete."
- There appear to be "no safety inspections of (germ warfare) contractors prior to contract awards" and no system for reporting accidents.
- The report went on to cite several incidents at just one facility at Ft. Detrick, Md. in which vials of dangerous germs had been "misplaced" or spilled, employees had been accidentally exposed, and a highly secure research area was extensively damaged by fire.
- Perhaps most disturbing of all to Utahns is the finding that research into chemical weapons and defenses is managed better for safety than is the research into biological defenses. The proposed new lab at Dugway would test defenses against germ warfare.
Such facilities can't reasonably be expected to be risk-free, and such relatively isolated spots as the western Utah desert still look like the logical location for these labs.
Even so, the Army still has plenty of questions to answer and problems to solve before it should proceed to set up and operate the new lab at Dugway.