Saturday, March 22, 2003

ALMATY, Kazakhstan When Soviet troops hastily buried hundreds of tons of weaponized anthrax on a remote island in the Aral Sea in 1988, they had no idea the site would be dug up by Americans, or that the lessons they would learn would be useful in the search for buried anthrax that is expected to begin after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Brian Hayes, who led the expedition to Vozrozhdeniye island last summer, is a biochemical engineer with the U.S. Threat Reduction Agency. During two long interviews, one in Washington, the other by telephone, he asked that his title not be disclosed, nor his role in the U.N. inspections of Iraq, in which he said he had participated.
He also declined to discuss what future role he might play in analyzing Iraqi soil samples.
Under difficult conditions, the American group dug up, tested, killed and reburied the anthrax over a three-month period. While not secret, the operation was not publicized by the U.S. government and, until now, no account of it has been published.
The island in the Aral Sea, called Vozrozhdeniye (Renaissance), was the site of the main testing ground for the Soviet biological-weapons program. Anthrax, plague, smallpox and a half-dozen other diseases, in addition to vaccines against them, were tested on the island, whose summer heat of 100-plus degrees Fahrenheit, dry climate and distance from population centers made it ideal to test deadly germs on animals.
First used in 1936, the island was abandoned by the Soviet army when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. It become the property of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. But because of its remoteness, neither country sent forces to guard it, and scavengers have been picking it of valuable materials every summer since 1996.
The anthrax was buried there after Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev became concerned that the stockpile produced and stocked at Zima, near Irkutsk would be an embarrassment if Western countries asked to inspect the plant.
Suspicions had been raised that the Soviet Union might be violating a 1972 treaty banning biological weapons after an accidental release in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) of anthrax spores killed some 70 people.
So the Soviets sent the spores by train to Aralsk, then by ship to the island, according to Kazakhstan officials. Russia hasn’t said how much anthrax was moved, and Mr. Hayes said it was hard to guess. Estimates vary between 100 and 200 tons.
The anthrax was buried at a depth of 5 to 8 feet, Mr. Hayes said.
“The purpose of the expedition [by the American team in 2002] was to prevent potential adversaries from acquiring biochemical materials that could pose a significant risk and danger to Uzbekistan and the United States,” Mr. Hayes said.
Gennady Lepyoshkin, who during the Soviet period ran a huge anthrax-production facility in Stepnogorsk, northern Kazakhstan, and spent 18 summers on the island, disputed the proliferation risk.
“It’s much easier to get anthrax spores from laboratories than from the island,” he said in an interview. “It’s very remote and not many people know where the anthrax was buried.”
Mr. Lepyoshkin said the anthrax used for the late 2001 attacks in Washington did not come from Vozrozhdeniye.
[Published accounts in the United States say the anthrax spores used in the 2001 attacks that killed five persons on the East Coast, including two postal workers in Washington, and contaminated government sites on Capitol Hill, were of the Ames strain, developed in a secret U.S. Army program. The person or persons behind those attacks have not been identified.]
Vozrozhdeniye island’s remoteness was very much on Mr. Hayes’ mind when he and a handful of Americans assembled in Nukus, Uzbekistan, for one of the most challenging expeditions in the history of biological weapons.
Nukus is one of the poorest towns in the former Soviet Union. Yet that is where Mr. Hayes procured five backhoes, four dump trucks, six water trucks, various four-wheel-drive vehicles and a crane, along with a work force of nearly 100 Uzbeks.
“We went door-to-door looking for the personnel and equipment,” he said. “Most of the equipment was in pretty bad shape so, for instance, we needed five backhoes to have three working simultaneously.”
Men and materiel were flown 100 miles to Moynak, once a prosperous fishing port on the Aral Sea, now a dying town 50 miles from its receding coast, in a creaking, single-engine Antonov An-2 biplane, the workhorse of the Soviet hinterlands.
From there, three Mi-8 helicopters carried the equipment another 100 miles to Kantubek, the town on Vozrozhdeniye island built for the 2,000 people who once staffed the top-secret testing ground.
Mr. Hayes bought a cement mixer in Nukus to mix the contaminated earth with calcium hydrochloride, which would kill the spores.
“It was too heavy for the helicopter to lift, so we disassembled it into two parts,” he said. “That was such a complicated process that once we finished, we realized that we probably couldn’t reassemble it.”
So Mr. Hayes devised another way to kill the anthrax: He used the backhoes to dig trenches in the vicinity of each of the 11 pits where the anthrax had been buried. The trench was lined with thick plastic, filled with calcium hydrochloride, and the contaminated earth was covered with water there for six days and then re-buried after testing found no live spores.
When the team which at its peak would total 113 persons arrived on the island, the challenges continued.
Not far from the pits were warehouses still containing standard laboratory equipment. The warehouses had become overgrown with weeds which, in the semi-desert environment, provided shelter for snakes and rodents.
“The first night, we found a 6-foot pit viper inside the camp,” he said. On another occasion, an 8-foot cobra was shot near the tents where the staff lived. “In all, we had run-ins with about 25 poisonous snakes.”
Water proved to be another problem. “We needed a lot of water because we sprayed the work area constantly so none of the anthrax spores could become airborne,” he said. “Basically, we worked in mud all the time. And in addition, we wore ‘hot zone’ suits any time we went within 300 yards of the pits. Everybody wore them.”
In Nukus, he was told he could drill for water on the island, but the equipment provided was useless. “We found a group of large cisterns in the town,” he said, “and we helicoptered the six water trucks so they could carry the water from the town to the pits” about 2 miles.
The Soviets had apparently mixed the anthrax with the calcium hydrochloride in what Mr. Hayes called “a smaller version of the 55-gallon drum” and then emptied the mixture into the pits, taking nearly all of the drums back with them.
“We did some testing, and when we found that some spores were alive, we didn’t go any further,” he said. “We just went on the assumption that all the earth in the sample area contained live spores.”
They brought high-tech lab equipment that was used to test more than 1,000 samples for live anthrax spores.
Without the lab, Mr. Hayes said, the team would not have been able to test the effectiveness of their work.
“We left everything looking the way it looked before,” he said. This correspondent, who spent five days in the area three months after the expedition and looked for the pits, failed to detect any sign of them.
The operation cost somewhere between $4 million and $5 million. “That’s a bargain. You couldn’t do it for that kind of money in the States,” Mr. Hayes said.
Near the laboratory complex was the unmarked grave of a woman who died of an infection she got handling germs several decades ago. “I used to drive up there every day and say a prayer for her,” he said.

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