A National Academies study released today says the U.S Army downplayed or overlooked a number of environmental risks while planning the expansion of biocontainment facilities at the United States Army Medical Research Institute (USAMRIID) of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Maryland. However, the findings of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study—requested by the Department of Defense at the urging of Congress—could be water under the bridge, given that USAMRIID has already begun construction toward the $680 million expansion.
The Army drew up plans for the new facility years ago, and produced an environmental impact statement (EIS) in 2006. The Academy review of EIS was ordered after local citizens expressed concerns about biosafety hazards stemming from the new biosafety level 3 and BSL-4 labs that would be a part of the facility. However, USAMRIID officials decided that there was no need to wait for the review to be completed. At a ground-breaking ceremony on 27 August 2009, USAMRIID Commander John Skvorak said, "I'm confident the folks who did the [environmental impact] study did a thorough job."
Not so, the NAS panel found. For example, the Army wrongly concluded that an accidental release of the Ebola virus and the bacteria that causes Q fever would lead to insignificant ground concentrations of the microbes in the surrounding area and would not be hazardous to locals. The NAS panel's own calculations showed that concentrations would be a lot higher. "The modeling performed" by the Army to reach its conclusion "was not transparent, could not be reproduced, and was incomplete," according to the report.
Also, the Army's EIS "did not adequately document or characterize individual risk of exposure or infection, nor did it consider potential exposures to workers and others on the base itself or how the spread of a pathogen would be affected by population size and density," according to a press release NAS issued about the study.
Despite uncovering these problems, the panel gave high marks to the safety procedures currently in place at USAMRIID, and didn't recommend that the Army redo EIS. "The committee has a high degree of confidence that the new USAMRIID facility will have the appropriate and effective physical security, biosurety program, and biosafety operating practices and procedures in place to protect its workers and the public from exposures to pathogens, and any new pathogens, studied in its laboratories," the report says.