Correction to This Article
A Feb. 27 Metro article misstated the estimated cost of Fort Detrick's National Interagency Biodefense Campus and the number of employees after expansion of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. A Fort Detrick spokesman said the estimate is $1.2 billion, not $10 billion, and there will be 1,300 employees. Also, the article incorrectly characterized "Operation Whitecoat" as part of an offensive bioweapons program. It was a medical research program.

Fort Detrick Neighbors Jittery Over Expansion

The program at Fort Detrick to create biological weapons
The program at Fort Detrick to create biological weapons "is dead and gone," says Col. George W. Korch Jr. "It still looms in people's imaginations." Korch heads the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2006

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the circulation of letters laced with the anthrax bacteria a few weeks later, the Bush administration moved to strengthen the nation's defenses against bioterrorism and began planning a major expansion at Fort Detrick.

But the project at the Army installation in Frederick is being challenged by some residents who live in the base's shadow, who say their community is not the place to build a major biodefense facility that would handle some of the world's most dangerous pathogens.

The opponents said that they understand they face steep odds in stopping the federal government's planned $10 billion National Interagency Biodefense Campus but that they're going to try anyway. When the Army called what it thought would be the first of a series of routine hearings on the environmental impact of the facility, about 30 people -- mostly opponents -- showed up.

"I realize people like you don't agree with people like us and would much rather not have to go through the motions of listening to people like us," Jason Kray, 26, of Frederick told Army officials at Wednesday's hearing. "I also realize that if people like you had listened to people like us, Detrick would not have spent so much time and money developing biological weapons during the Cold War. . . . If people like you had listened to people like us, soldiers on both sides of the current war would not be dying or losing limbs."

Several warned that the campus makes an inviting terrorist target and questioned its location in a densely populated area. They also questioned the government's claim that the research would be limited to finding cures for deadly diseases, suggesting that the facility's work could also be used to create bioweapons.

"You know there is no line between offense and defense," said Richard J. Ochs, 67, a retired printer who lives in Baltimore.

Others noted that accidents are liable at even the most secure institutions. They also wondered how the facility could ensure that no insiders would ever use their access or knowledge for destructive uses, noting that the FBI's unsolved investigation into the anthrax mailings has centered on the possibility that the deadly bacteria came from Fort Detrick.

Steven J. Hatfill, a former scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, was labeled a "person of interest" by former U.S. attorney general John D. Ashcroft. Hatfill, who has not been charged, has denied any involvement and sued Ashcroft and the government to clear his name.

"The terrible irony is that the source of this unique attack was biodefense itself," said Barry Kissin, 54, a Frederick lawyer who is running for Congress as a Democrat this year.

The comments were a sign that the hearings into expanding the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, known as USAMRIID, [pronounced u-SAM-rid] would be anything but routine.

Army officials listened to the complaints without commenting. They plan to release an analysis responding to concerns.

The facility is to become the cornerstone of the National Interagency Biodefense Campus. The public comment period on the environmental issues ends March 10.

Under the government's plan, the campus would house laboratories for the Homeland Security Department's National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, whose groundbreaking is set for May; the Agriculture Department's Foreign Disease-Weed Research unit; and the Health and Human Services Department's National Institutes for Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Cancer Institute.

The USAMRIID facility currently has about 750 staff members and 23 labs, including six that operate at Biosafety Level 4 -- or under the strictest regulations to prevent accidental releases.

Under current plans, the first stage would more than triple the existing space by 2014. The staff would increase by 1,300 people.

Supporters say that besides its importance to national security, the expansion at Fort Detrick would bring jobs directly to the base, which is already Frederick County's largest employer, and attract additional biotech companies and others to the area.

But opponents say Fort Detrick's history is enough cause for alarm. For two decades beginning in the late 1940s, it led the U.S. government's efforts to research and develop biological weapons, including anthrax bacteria.

When the program was dismantled by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969, USAMRIID began its mission in basic and applied research to protect the public and the military from biological threats.

"Research at USAMRIID has been and will continue to be solely defensive in nature," the institute's leader, Col. George W. Korch Jr., said. Referring to the government's efforts to develop biological weapons at Fort Detrick years ago, known as Operation Whitecoat, Korch said in an interview Friday: "That program is dead and gone, a thing of the past. It still looms in people's imaginations."

Today, Korch said USAMRIID research is subject to open review by peers, and its scientists compete to publish their findings in the most prestigious journals.

USAMRIID's scientists have developed a vaccine that can protect against anthrax bacteria exposure and enhance a person's chances of surviving the illness after becoming infected, Korch said. Recently, they also announced the discovery of a breakthrough for a possible vaccine against the Ebola virus, Korch said.

Korch acknowledged that such a terrorist attack on Fort Detrick is "a possibility." But he said the installation has heavy security in place to thwart one.

Several people in the Governor Thomas Johnson High School auditorium Wednesday in Frederick expressed a mood of futility.

"I realize this facility will be built no matter what we do," Kray said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company