The Marine Corps' elite chemical and biological weapons response team is being relocated to a military base in suburban Maryland, officials said yesterday, a move they said is being taken in part to bolster the Washington area's ability to cope with potential terrorist attacks.
The 373-member Marine unit will begin moving in April from Camp Lejeune, N.C., to the Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center in Charles County, according to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). Marine Corps officials said final military approval of the move is pending.
The specially trained and equipped force was created in 1996 to combat the growing threat of chemical and biological terrorism. In a decision made yesterday, the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Jones, agreed that the team would be better positioned closer to the nation's capital, according to congressional officials.
The Washington region's role as a home to numerous federal facilities "unfortunately makes it more susceptible to these types of threats and terrorist activities," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.).
"If something were to happen, it would probably happen closer to here than to Camp Lejeune," said Maj. David Andersen, a spokesman for Marine Corps headquarters.
Members of the unit, known as the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, are trained to deploy worldwide in the case of a chemical or biological terrorist attack and are sometimes sent to locations where officials fear an attack might take place.
Indian Head's proximity to Andrews Air Force Base will make it easier to quickly deploy the unit, another factor in the decision to move to Maryland, officials said.
The force has the ability to detect and identify chemical and biological agents, to medically treat and evacuate casualties from a contaminated location, to decontaminate casualties and to disarm weapons of mass destruction.
"It's the only unit that can do everything together," said 2nd Lt. James Jarvis, a spokesman for the unit at Camp Lejeune.
Sarbanes said the unit's capabilities would help this area "be the best prepared to deal with these potential threats should they ever occur."
Marine Corps officials said the move needs further approval before it is final. "An internal decision was made today," said Andersen. "A final decision will follow further consultation with senior military and civilian leadership."
At Indian Head, a century-old munitions facility on the banks of the Potomac River, the Marines will move into a facility formerly used by the Navy's famed Explosive Ordnance School, which moved last year to Florida.
The Marines will spend about $11 million at Indian Head to upgrade the facilities.
"This is great news for our area and for the base," said Hoyer, who represents Southern Maryland in Congress.
The move of the high-profile Marine unit to Maryland is also likely to strengthen the long-term survival of the Indian Head facility, which has been threatened in past rounds of base closures, officials said.
Stationing the unit at Indian Head will mean a significant boost in the active-duty military population at the Navy base, which is now populated primarily by civilian workers. "We'll welcome them with open arms," said Navy Capt. John Walsh, the commander of the base.
Andersen said the support available at Indian Head for Marine families, including child-care facilities and schools, was an important factor in the Marine Corps' decision.
The unit, which includes medical personnel, is trained to assist local and federal agencies in controlling the aftermath of terrorist acts, officials said. The unit was deployed to Washington for the NATO summit last April and to Atlanta for the 1996 summer Olympics.