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Release of bacteria into air at Army fort upsets neighbors

By MICHAEL MANSUR The Kansas City Star
Date: 10/26/00 23:24

Joyce Riley vonKleist has been immersed in the military for much of her life, as an Air Force captain and an activist for ill Persian Gulf War veterans.

But even she was surprised to hear this month that a nearby Army base, Fort Leonard Wood, was releasing a biological agent into the atmosphere.

An Army spokesman said Thursday the agent was harmless bacteria used to simulate an anthrax attack on U.S. troops.

But Riley vonKleist and some other Ozarks residents worry that the military is experimenting on them without their consent.

"You can't smoke in restaurants in California, and you can't even barbecue in some places, but you can disperse bacterial agents into the air. I don't think so," said Riley vonKleist, who lives in Versailles, Mo., about 50 miles northwest of the fort.

Since learning of the releases in early October, Riley vonKleist has distributed fliers detailing her concerns. That was enough to draw a crowd of about 200 Ozarks-area residents -- along with state environmental officials -- to a presentation she made Thursday night in Versailles.

Versailles Mayor John Leeper, citing his concerns, said earlier Thursday, "I never dreamed they would be doing something like this."

Indeed, few neighbors of the fort may have known about the releases. The media and Missouri environmental groups have focused more on the Army base's planned use of burning oil to create battlefield fog and on the base's proposed use of nerve gases.

Even so, state and federal regulators, as well as Fort Leonard Wood officials, explained Thursday that the releases of the bacteria -- bacillus subtilis -- are legal and virtually harmless.

The bacterium is widely used in science laboratories and can be commonly found in the environment, such as in dirt. It possibly could hurt immune-suppressed individuals, who would include some cancer or AIDS patients.

"The health experts tell us it's harmless," said Connie Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the agency that sets limits on air pollution allowed from the fort's training operations.

"It's considered a benign agent," said Derik Crotts, Fort Leonard Wood's director of public affairs. "Nothing we've done here has been done in secret."

Environmental impact statements disclosed the use of the bacterial agents, and the fort has been careful to comply with its state's air permit in its use of bacillus subtilis, Crotts added. He invited anyone who was concerned to come to the base to check out its training operations.

Four times a year, the Army teaches soldiers how to detect harmful biological agents, such as anthrax, during battle. Bacillus subtilis, which the military says has properties similar to anthrax, is used during that training.

Three times this year, Fort Leonard Wood has released the bacteria to simulate anthrax, state officials said. Under its state permit, the Army can release up to 49.5 pounds per year of bacillus subtilis.

Officials with the Department of Natural Resources checked with state and federal health officials on Wednesday after receiving media inquiries about the military's release of bacteria, Patterson said.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said they had reviewed the military's plan to use this bacterial agent and were comfortable with the releases.

"This agent is used to simulate a very, very dangerous bioterrorism agent (anthrax), and it's important for our national security that this training continue," said Jake Joyce, environmental health scientist in EPA's regional office in Kansas City, Kan.

"Most bioterrorism experts say it's not a matter of if, but when, someone hits us with this stuff," Joyce said. "We need people trained in handling this stuff, or we're going to be totally vulnerable."

Last year, Fort Leonard Wood, 63,000 acres of military land nestled in the Ozark woods about 150 miles southeast of Kansas City, activated its new Maneuver Support Center, which included new chemical training operations. Those attracted state and national attention, including lawsuits from environmental groups and articles in the Los Angeles Times.

Ken Midkiff, director of the Sierra Club in Missouri, said he was surprised to hear this week about the release of bacterial agents.

"I don't recall anything in the air permit about biological substances," he said. "It was all about chemicals.

"If it was there, it sure was buried."

Midkiff said the Department of Natural Resources should halt use of the bacterial agent until its safety can be confirmed.

In other parts of the country, federal officials have had trouble soothing neighbors when the use of bacillus subtilis was proposed. Some opponents near Fort Polk in Louisiana protested the use of the bacterial agent in early October.

At Los Alamos National Laboratory last year, scientists canceled plans to test biowarfare detectors after laboratory neighbors protested.

But in Missouri, when state officials held two public hearings last year on the air pollution permits for Fort Leonard Wood, bacillus subtilis wasn't mentioned in news releases or legal notices about the hearings.

In retrospect, Patterson said, no one intended to mislead the public, but it might have been best to err on the side of disclosing more information.

"We were reassured that this was harmless," she said. "But looking back at the public notices, well...it's always best to include as much as you can."


To reach Michael Mansur, environment writer, call (816) 234-4433 or send e-mail to mmansur@kcstar.com

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