Lab and Community Make for Uneasy Neighbors
Saturday, August 2, 2008
Across the street from the razor wire guarding Fort Detrick, the people living along Military Road would see the strange cars and SUVs with the tinted glass come and go like clockwork.
Sometimes the neighbors could tell the hour of the day by the 4 p.m. shift change of the mysterious cars staking out the home of microbiologist Bruce E. Ivins.
"One car would pull up and the other would pull away," recalled neighbor Natalie Duggan,16.
At other times, the cars would block a driveway, and residents would ask the drivers to move. Then the cars would vanish for a few days, only to return.
Early Sunday morning, the cars were replaced by a firetruck and ambulance, neighbors said, after Ivins, 62, was found unconscious from an overdose of acetaminophen. Ivins, who had become a leading suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks, died Tuesday. He had committed suicide, officials said.
His death and its link to the anthrax attacks raised again the underlying tension between Fort Detrick and the community around it. The Army post is at once Frederick County's largest employer and its biggest worry, given the dangerous pathogens handled at the bioweapons laboratory and a large expansion now planned.
"There's always been an uneasiness," County Commissioner David P. Gray said yesterday. "Fort Detrick is surrounded by residential communities."
It was there in 1989 that experts identified the deadly Ebola virus in a monkey imported to the area from the Philippines.
It was there in 1992 that groundwater was found to be contaminated and in 1995 that a tiny but worrisome leak was found in a sewer line leading from laboratories that handled deadly microbes.
It was there in 2002 that old syringes and vials containing live bacteria and rat embryos in formaldehyde were found during cleanup of a dump site, and anthrax spores were found to have been accidentally released in a building on the base.
And it was a only few miles away in 2003 that the FBI drained 1.45 million gallons of water from a pond in a bizarre search for clues in the anthrax case. Investigators found a bicycle, a gun and some fishing lures, none related to the probe.
In June, the government agreed to pay former Fort Detrick biological-weapons expert Steven J. Hatfill a settlement valued at $5.85 million to drop a lawsuit he filed after the Justice Department named him a "person of interest" in the anthrax investigation.