- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

FREDERICK, Md. — The Department of Homeland Security said yesterday that its proposed laboratory for biological threat research at Fort Detrick poses little risk of inviting a terrorist attack or releasing dangerous microbes.

The federal agency also said the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center won’t develop biological weapons and won’t violate the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which the United States signed in 1972.

Critics continued to question whether the government would use the lab to develop new, deadlier strains of bacteria and viruses, as well as new methods of delivering them, to test the effectiveness of U.S. defenses.

“How you can do that responsibly and in a way that does not induce a biological arms race is a real concern,” said Alan Pearson of the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

The government’s final environmental impact statement for the $128 million project said the center will “provide the nation with the scientific basis for awareness of biological threats and attribution of their use against the American public.”

Workers will study the nation’s vulnerability to biological threats, guide the development of countermeasures and analyze evidence from biological attacks, the report said.

The agency said it aims to break ground in the first quarter of 2006 and finish construction within 21/2 years.

The center is among four projects comprising the planned National Interagency Biodefense Campus on the Army post in Frederick. The others are a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases laboratory, a Department of Agriculture lab and a new laboratory complex for the U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases.

The government concluded that the homeland security lab “will result in no significant adverse environmental, socioeconomic or human health impacts.”

It acknowledged that the center and the biodefense campus were considered “at risk” for terrorist attacks, but said “the threat is small compared with other more likely assets in the region, even more so when considered nationally.”

It also rated as “negligible” the threat to the public from deadly organisms, even under a worst-case scenario — or “maximum credible event” — involving simultaneous releases from each of the high-security labs.

In response to critics’ questions about congressional oversight, the agency promised to develop formal procedures for informing Congress of the center’s work.

It said some of the research may be classified, but “the center’s processes will be fully transparent to external and congressional oversight bodies.”

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