- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2002

FREDERICK, Md. Eight sentries are on constant guard against the poisoning of Fort Detrick's water supply.
Each is three inches long.
They are baby bluegills, silently treading water in clear plastic chambers inside a white trailer along the Monocacy River, near the post's water intake.
They breathe the same water that is piped to the treatment plant next door. A computer linked to electronic sensors charts every gill pulse and body movement.
Like canaries in a coal mine, the fish were placed at the site in October to help safeguard drinking water at Fort Detrick and its sophisticated biological-warfare defense laboratory.
If the fish act strangely, it could mean something bad is in the water maybe something poured in deliberately, Col. Donald P. Driggers said.
"It's like putting guards around your place," said Col. Driggers, commander of the Army Center for Environmental Health Research. "It hardens your target and acts as a deterrent."
There have been no known attempts to contaminate the river, which is also a source of drinking water for Frederick, which is Maryland's second-largest city. Still, interest is high at Fort Detrick and across the country in closer monitoring of water supplies.
"We've had a lot of calls since the September 11 attacks," said Joseph Bernosky, a water-quality engineer with the American Water Works Association.
Enter the bluegills. Enclosed in side-by-side compartments the size of paperback books, they are at the heart of a real-time, online, biological early-warning system a centuries-old concept with modern refinements.
Other such systems use water fleas, mussels, algae or bacteria as indicators of water quality. They have been employed in Europe, particularly Germany, since the 1970s to monitor the health of rivers.
However, there are few such systems in place at water plants in the United States, where water quality is assured mainly by chemical analysis for known contaminants. A weakness in that approach, say the scientists behind Fort Detrick's fishy monitor, is that the toxins they test for may not be what terrorists dump into a river or reservoir.
"You can't anticipate every chemical in every incident that might occur," said Paul L. Knechtges, science and technology director of Col. Driggers' unit.
The fish are generalists. If the computer detects at least six of them acting oddly, it alerts the system's human managers and starts a machine filling sample bottles with water for testing.
"It basically raises a flag and says, 'You might want to take a closer look here because something is causing the fish to behave abnormally,'" said William H. van der Schalie, director of biomonitoring and aquatic systems.
A gallon of river water spends nearly two days at the treatment plant before being piped four or five miles to Fort Detrick, so any contamination can be stopped long before reaching the post, Col. Driggers said.
In the past six years, the Army has used the system to monitor the effectiveness of a groundwater-cleanup project at Aberdeen Proving Ground and to check for toxic Pfiesteria piscicida in the Chicamacomico River in Dorchester County. None were found.
U.S. Olympic officials considered using it to help safeguard drinking water at the Salt Lake City Games, but chose a more compact, less-costly German biomonitoring system, Col. Driggers said.
It would have cost $25,000 to $50,000 to transport and run the Army system for two months, he said. Commercially available biomonitoring systems range from $10,000 to $100,000, he said.
The Army began the project in hopes of creating an easily deployable system to help protect troops in the field. Compactness and transportability are less of a concern for domestic use, but are still important. Instead of a 48-foot trailer, "we would like something we could put in the trunk of a car and plug into an electrical socket," Mr. Knechtges said.


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