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Fort Detrick Sewer Leak Raises Questions

Source: Washington Post by Brian Mooar

Contractors working at the Fort Detrick Army base near Frederick, Md., last month discovered a tiny leak in a sewer line from the laboratories where government scientists study the world’s most hazardous viruses and bacterial warfare agents.

The leak was quickly repaired and posed no threat to public health, officials said, but it raised questions about the integrity of a five-mile network of concrete-encased, cast-iron sewer lines laid nearly 45 years ago.

“The question we were asking even before the tests is: How do we know the system is any good, and do we even need the system?” said base spokesman Norm Covert. “Is it overkill? It is a fail-safe system that has done its job since 1951, and we’ve never had a public health problem as a result of the research done here at Fort Detrick.”

Mark L. Hoke, president of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners and a former commander of Fort Detrick, said he was confident that the leak was not a health risk and that the base’s procedures for disposing of infectious materials were sound.

“As far as this being a health hazard — heifer dust,” said Hoke, who worked at Detrick as a biological warfare technician in the 1950s and commanded the base from 1983 to 1986. “I’m not worried about it. In the entire history of Fort Detrick, there have been four deaths, and they were the fault of individuals doing something stupid. And one of them was my uncle.”

James Bowes, Frederick County’s top civilian public health officer, did not respond to requests for an interview Friday. His secretary said the county public health office was not investigating the leak because it is under Fort Detrick’s jurisdiction.

Like Hoke, several residents who live near Fort Detrick said they believed they had nothing to fear. “I trust them; they’ve been good neighbors,” said Joe Davis, an 83-year-old retired Boy Scout executive who has lived near the fort for two decades. “When they say there’s no danger, I believe them.”

Not everyone was so easily convinced.

“It’s scary,” said Sally Morris, 23, who moved near Fort Detrick nearly two years ago with her children, ages 2, 4 and 6. “I like {living in} Frederick. It’s nice, but when I hear that kind of stuff, I want to move further away from here.”

The leak was discovered recently in a lead-soldered joint of a 12-inch-wide pipe about 100 feet from a steam sterilization plant where waste water from 50 laboratories on the base is treated. The leak was the only one found by technicians from an Arizona testing firm after they pumped water through the pipes at a pressure of 100 pounds per square inch.

At that high pressure, Covert said, waste water leaked from the joint at a rate of about one teaspoon an hour. When in normal use, the sewer line is not pressurized and uses gravity to pull waste water to the sterilization plant, Covert said.

When the technicians pumped a marker gas through the sewage system, they found what appeared to be massive leakage in at least three spots, Covert said, but then after extensive testing, they discovered only the single pinpoint leak.

In addition to studying cancer and AIDS, laboratories at Fort Detrick handle a variety of exotic and deadly diseases, including ebola, anthrax, lassa fever, marburg, Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever and the Machupo virus.

Fort Detrick once was home to the Army Biological Warfare Laboratories, the top-secret Cold War research center where germ and poison weapons were developed. It now houses the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and other leading labs.

Fort Detrick scientists study “a lot of diseases for which there is no known prevention or cure . . . because they are found in places where our soldiers may one day be called to fight,” Covert said.

According to procedures developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, waste water from the Fort Detrick labs is supposed to be boiled or chemically sterilized before entering the sewer system. But even if scientists fail to decontaminate the waste at that point, Covert said, potentially infectious organisms are in many cases highly diluted and unable to survive outside the laboratory.

Though budget-conscious officials at Detrick have debated whether they need the self-contained waste water treatment system, Covert said the base likely will keep the current pipelines or build a series of in-lab treatment facilities to keep Detrick’s civilian neighbors comfortable. “They’re so bloody safety conscious it’s unbelievable,” Hoke said. “Everything that was built out there has so many backup systems and is so redundant, it’s to the point where they’re backed up way over 100 percent.”