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Posted: Thursday, October 26, 2000 | 9:44 p.m.

Breaking story....

Army defends spraying of safe bacteria at Fort Leonard Wood

By Virginia Baldwin Gilbert Of the Post-Dispatch

The Army has sprayed bacteria outdoors at Fort Leonard Wood during two biological-warfare training exercises in the last year, in February and August.

The releases into the air conformed to permit restrictions required by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. And state and federal officials say the spray - using a common soil bacteria - presents no health hazard.

But a Persian Gulf War veteran in central Missouri has questioned the Army's low profile in obtaining the permit and fears that it is not coming clean about potential hazards. The veteran, Joyce Riley vonKleist, called a public meeting Thursday night that officials and environmentalists planned to attend.

State and Army officials now find themselves in a rear-guard action, trying to defend the decision to use the spray and the process for issuing the air-pollution permit.

They are not helped by the fact the word "bacteria" did not appear in any of the notices for two informal sessions and two formal public hearings held last year to consider the outdoor spraying, and did not apparently come up in the discussions.

Even the permit refers only to "BIDS" - an acronym for the Army's biological integrated detection system - and "simulant" - the Army's term for benign bacteria that simulate a more dangerous strain.

Connie Patterson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources, wishes the written material had been more explicit.

"From looking at it in hindsight, it's a good idea to include as much information as we can in a legal notice concerning permits that affect public health and the environment," Patterson said.

The bacteria in question is found naturally in the soil. It is used in genetic research labs and by military researchers studying a related bacteria that causes anthrax, a disease fatal to people and livestock.

It is also a common ingredient in crop fungicides and has been certified safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The bacteria is concentrated in a powder, which is dissolved in water and then sprayed about 10 feet above the ground. The state limits the Army to spraying 4 pounds of the liquid in a day for a total of 49.5 pounds a year.

But those restrictions don't mollify Riley vonKleist, a former Persian Gulf War flight nurse and Air Force Reserve captain.

"Why put new bacteria into the environment?" asked Riley vonKleist, who is also a leader in the American Gulf War Veterans Association.

Riley vonKleist expressed outrage that the releases were done without "informed consent of the general population."

Riley vonKleist called a public meeting Thursday night in Versailles, Mo., near her home, to discuss the releases and call on the Army to stop.

Representatives from the Department of Natural Resources and the Army planned to attend.

The Army conducts biological defense training four times a year, said Maj. Derik Crotts, public information officer at Fort Leonard Wood.

It is a five-week course and trains approximately 60 soldiers a year, Crotts said. The spraying is part of a field exercise conducted during the last week of the course, weather permitting. If the wind direction and speed are not within permit guidelines - as occurred in June and earlier this month - the exercise is scrapped, Crotts said.

The exercise teaches soldiers to use equipment designed to provide early detection of biological hazards on the battlefield, Crotts said. The spray was used routinely for six years when the Chemical Defense Training Facility was in Alabama. The school moved to Missouri last fall.

At the time, concern was raised about two substances used in training: sarin, a deadly chemical that is handled only behind sealed doors under restricted conditions, and fog oil, a thick white smoke used to cover troop movements.

Fort Leonard Wood officials stressed the safety of the training programs. The Army even held a weeklong open house in September 1999, inviting members of the news media and general public to tour and observe demonstrations of the training programs.

They held no demonstrations of the bacteria spray, Crotts said.

Tina Hesman of the Post-Dispatch contributed information for this story.

To contact reporter Virginia Baldwin Gilbert:

E-mail: vgilbert@postnet.com

Phone: 314-862-2153

 

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