Lab and Community Make for Uneasy Neighbors

By Aaron Davis, Michael E. Ruane and Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.

And now, in a two-story white house with dark red shutters on a street lined with maples and oaks, comes Ivins's suicide.

Early yesterday, a young man who was visibly upset and pacing in the yard yelled at a reporter to leave the front porch. A woman and another man then tried to calm the young man and walk him back inside the house.

"He was a great neighbor, always quick to help out if you needed anything," said Bonnie Duggan, Natalie's mother, who lives down the street in the community of young families, retirees and immigrants. "He was not one of those people who was reclusive and stuck to himself. He wasn't that kind of person.

"That he would be implicated in any kind of way with the anthrax letters and so forth is a tremendous shock," she said.

Along North Market street in the nearby city of Frederick, Jane Mackley was having coffee with friends yesterday.

"It seems strange that all this would be linked to Frederick," she said. "Just hearing something nationwide that comes back to our little town. . . . It kind of blows your mind."

Yet others were not so surprised that the anthrax case was tied to Fort Detrick.

"We've known . . . that the anthrax letters were an inside job for a very long time," said Barry Kissin, a Frederick lawyer and opponent of the base's expansion, who called the facility "a germ factory."

The technology that went into the attacks had to have come from a U.S. military laboratory or a contractor working for one, Kissin said.

But until fairly recently, "Detrick could do no wrong, no matter what," he said.

In June, the Environmental Protection Agency said it planned to add the base to the Superfund list of the most polluted places in the country.

Still, the base has benefited the community.

"We've not had a bad relationship with Fort Detrick on an ongoing basis," said Gray, the county commissioner. "It's been good. But the county's never taken a real hard stance in regards to safety."

With a workforce of 4,800, the installation is the largest employer in the county. It began in the 1930s as a National Guard airfield and became a biological laboratory during World War II.

As home to the Army Biological Warfare Laboratories, the facility ran a top-secret program producing offensive biological weapons from 1943 until 1969.

During World War II, 5,000 bombs filled with anthrax spores were produced at what was then called Camp Detrick. Two workers there died from exposure to anthrax in the 1950s. Another died in 1964 from viral encephalitis.

Fort Detrick is one of only two U.S. facilities with "Biohazard Level 4" maximum-containment germ laboratories. The others are at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Scientists work to fight such deadly diseases as Ebola, Rift Valley fever, Lassa fever, Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever and the Machupo virus.

The tightly sealed labs have negative air flow, and researchers wear baby-blue, spacesuit-like pressurized garb and breathe filtered air when they work inside.

In the event that a researcher is accidentally infected, he or she can be treated in a special isolation chamber known as "the Slammer." The last time it was used for employees was in the mid-1980s as a precaution.

Bonnie Duggan, who lives six houses from Ivins's house, remembered a time six years ago that seemed to illustrate just how careful he had learned to be.

She asked to borrow his chain saw to cut down trees along her back fence. Ivins wanted to do it himself.

"He came down here dressed like an ad from Black and Decker," she said, recalling his hard hat, ear protection, goggles and overalls. "I thought, 'This just must be the way he is in his lab,' taking every precaution."

As for the base, she said, "he was always very sensitive to Fort Detrick being cast in any negative light."

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