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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wenschhof Interviews Beth Willis

Today, my guest is Beth Willis; co-founder of "Frederick Citizens for Bio-Lab Safety" and we will be talking about the construction of over 1 million square feet of high containment labs taking place in Fort Detrick, which is located within the City of Frederick, Maryland which is the second largest city in the state. Research on many high risk pathogens will be conducted in these labs.

I first met Beth about 33 years ago when I went to work with Frederick county government after my return home from graduate school at Indiana University. We both were independent Monitors and Evaluators of the locally administered federally funded Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. As we also shared an office, we got to know each other well.

I believe she and her husband still live in the same home in southern Frederick county they did when I met them. Beth tells me she continues to enjoy the outdoors and hiking when able. Today, as time permits, she also enjoys spending time with their new granddaughter. It is hard to believe how time flies by.

I found Beth to be very serious and conscientious, yet practical in regard to her work. It was because of these attributes, that when she spoke out in recent years about safety concerns pertaining to the planned expansion at Fort Detrick, she caught my attention.

Before, I welcome Beth and ask her the first question, let me explain we are having this conversation from different locations in Frederick via the Internet using computers. I have not shared previously with Beth any of the questions I will be asking, so this is a "live" online interview.

There will be some delay in the posting of questions and answers as they are being typed so also remember to hit your computer refresh button every ten minutes or so if you are reading this "live".

The link to this discussion will be placed in the right hand margin so it may also be read at times convenient to our readers.

GW -
Beth, I want to thank you for taking the time to be with me today and to share your thoughts about what appears to be a huge expansion of Bio-Labs at Ft. Detrick.

First, if you would, please begin with and briefly share with us why and when you first got involved in this issue. It was 2003, when it was announced Fort Detrick would become the national headquarters for the new U.S. bio-defense program.

Much has transpired since then and we will try to cover some of it and bring us up to date, including the release two weeks ago of the study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, as we continue our conversation.

I will ask you to tell us more about the Environmental Impact Statement in my next question.

BW -
Good afternoon George, and thanks so much for making this conversation possible. This is an important issue for people in Frederick, and actually people everywhere. It's a complicated topic and so it's hard for people to wrap their minds around. Over the years I've had to figure out how to find the heart of the problem with the lab expansion, for myself, and to communicate with others.

In some senses what we're going to talk about today is the story of determined citizens using common sense and discovering that they can make a difference. It also turns out that our common sense evaluation of this situation has been validated.

Yes, this all came to the attention of folks in Frederick in 2003. After the 2001 Anthrax attacks, the federal response was to start pouring billions of dollars into building what's called "high-containment" labs all over the country. We're told that these labs would research bio-weapons pathogens in order to find cures or vaccines. Over 1600 labs (nobody knows the exact number) would research pathogens such as plague and anthrax, and some 12 labs would work with pathogens such as Ebola, for which there is no treatment or cure.

Fort Detrick was designated the national headquarters for this laboratory system. We found this out in 2003 when we heard about the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the first new lab at Detrick, The IRF, to be operated by NIH. A year later the EIS for the Homeland Security lab was issued, a year after that the EIS for the expanded USAMRIID. There will also be labs run by Dept of Agriculture, Walter Reed and others all at Detrick.

This didn't get my attention until 2004, when I learned about the Homeland Security EIS. I'd worked about the national labs run by the Dept of Energy. The more I read about the plans the more they raised red flags in my mind. About safety, about the mission, and about the amount of money flowing to corporations and driving the building boom.

I started researching, in scientific journals and sources I thought would be credible. It became clear to me that my common sense response was shared by a lot of scientists and folks in Congress. I talked to some of these experts. I found that communities all over the country were alarmed and resisting. I never intended to get this involved, but the more I learned the more I became convinced that this was a really serious issue. And it was clear that unless the community organized, we would have no say at all in the matter. After I realized how superficial the EIS was, I realized we weren't even going to find out what the real risks were that were going to be imposed on us.

GW -
A lot of local community concern is centered around health and safety issues and specifically, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a report which is required to be submitted prior to the granting of final approvals of projects of this sort. The report was submitted, approvals granted and today, construction has begun.

However, questions remain in regard to the EIS report, including the lack of any effort to include alternative sites for this facility. Specifically, sites located far from heavily populated areas. In addition, there were questions raised from the beginning pertaining to health and safety issues.

When was it that you first read the EIS report and tell us more about what caught your attention back then.

BW -
The EIS reports for the NIH lab, Homeland Security lab and USAMRIID labs are almost identical. So the problems are the same for the whole "National Interagency Biodefense Campus" as its called.

I read the Homeland Security EIS in October 2004, the USAMRIID one was first issued in 2005. By then I'd learned something about NEPA- the National Environmental Protection Act. NEPA is what mandates a very formal EIS process, including formal community meetings. NEPA is supposed ensure processes that protect people from hazardous projects. It is supposed to make sure that decision-makers have the information they need for where to safely build, how to design and how to operate a facility.

NEPA requires an evaluation of the alternative risks at alternative locations. None of these EIS's did such an evaluation. Most of the content of these thick documents were "boilerplate" information. The most important part, the "hazard assessment" was all of 9 pages long, and you didn't have to be a scientist to figure out how superficial it was. There were lots of things it didn't evaluate- but what really struck me is that there was an assumption that pathogens could not possibly escape, so there was no evaluation of what would happen if they did. There was a short statement that "insider threat" was not likely and not easy to statistically characterize, so it was not considered. We were dumbfounded.

GW -
We will talk about some Frederick County government hearings which were held on this subject in a minute, but before we get to that, you helped to form "Frederick Citizens for Bio-Lab Safety".

When did this committee get off the ground, and who are some of the members? Did you feel an organized committee effort would be more effective when dealing with government bureaucracy? Share with us some of the goals of the organization and how someone would get involved and join, if they wished to do so today.

BW -
Frederick Citizens for Bio-lab Safety got organized in January 2008.

Citizens had been organizing in opposition to the labs since 2003, and we had spent over a year trying to obtain a lawsuit in hopes that would find the EIS to be in non-compliance with the law. We hoped we could get an injunction to stop further lab development until an adequate assessment of public risk was developed. At that point we were focusing on the USAMRIID EIS because that was the most recent, but hoped any outcome would clearly apply to all of the labs. We've always believed that the public and our elected officials have a right to know, and to determine what risks we are willing to assume.

We were not able to obtain that lawsuit, and so in January '08, some of us decided on a different approach: a scientific evaluation of the hazard assessment by the nation's premier scientific body- the National Academy of Sciences. Frederick Citizens for Bio-lab Safety was organized to petition the Army, the Board of County Commissioners and Senator Mikulksi to obtain a safety study on the labs.

We are made up of people from across the community, of all political persuasions and professional backgrounds. We have a number of scientists who are very familiar with the National Academy, and with the EIS process. We wanted to have a united voice for our concerns. Anyone can participate by getting in touch with me and letting me know they want to receive information, or get involved.

There are lots of issues with these labs, and some of us ALSO work on national biodefense policy concerns, some on biological weapons convention concerns, some on the ongoing questions surrounding the Anthrax letters.

But Frederick Citizens takes a community advocacy, community rights perspective. We're focused on public health. We want to make sure the community knows the real risks, so that those risks can be properly mitigated. And we want to see that the many ways in which the public health connection has not worked well in the past is made much better. Things such as no clarity about who at Fort Detrick contacts whom in the community, and when when there's an accident. We are advocates for citizens and elected officials having a voice in what happens here...

We are not opposed to Fort Detrick, biomedical research, the Army or USAMRIID's diverse mission. We are focused on the massive expansion of the high containment labs, on the research with what's called "category A" bio-warfare pathogens and the health and safety risks they bring to the community.

(Category A pathogens according to the Centers for Disease Control include anthrax, botulism, plague, tularemia, hemorrhagic fevers....)

GW -
Let's now talk about some of the local government hearings which were conducted on this issue. I seem to recall Frederick County Commissioner David Gray scheduling a special public meeting to discuss the bio-lab expansion at Fort Detrick. Additional time was provided for testimony and it was even held at City Hall, instead of the regular county meeting room. This may have been a result of the efforts of your group.

Please share with us the public hearing process that took place, along with a summary of the testimony you and your organization provided.

BW -
We've been to lots of hearings and meetings. NEPA requires community meetings at 3 points in the EIS process- so that's nine meetings. But these are very formal affairs. Lab folks give a presentation, citizens get 3 minutes to comment. No questions. There were a few community meetings sponsored by Fort Detrick that were also very tightly controlled. Written responses to community questions were superficial and dismissive. So we'd had some 10 or 12 frustrating meetings when Commissioner David Gray tried to set up a meeting of more substance among some of the Commissioners, lab officials and a couple of members of the community who had been leading the effort. He received no response from the Fort.

So Commissioner Gray scheduled a public meeting just before Thanksgiving in 2007, at City Hall (the room was bigger). Over 200 citizens attended. People testified about their concerns for over 4 hours before the board of county commissioners. (nobody from Fort Detrick attended). It seemed like people finally felt like they had somewhere to really talk about their concerns. There was a groundswell of community support to "do something". We were asking the Commissioners to take on a court review of the USAMRIID EIS. They ultimately decided not to do that, and we were left with wondering "what next?" That's when we decided to petition for a National Academy of Sciences safety study.

We testified about why an adequate EIS is important, about the lab EIS's many inadequacies, some of which I've mentioned earlier. Scientists talked about their experiences with lab scientists getting a little to comfortable to maintain proper safety protocols, about the ways in which "low probability" events can have big consequences. They talked about how equipment that should never fail, does. And about how important public health preparedness is.

GW -
Beth, I also seem to recollect that in spite of the testimony of many Frederick residents in opposition to the bio-lab construction at Ft. Detrick, approval and construction continued to move forward.

I believe a law suit was necessary to challenge the EIS and as the cost was prohibitive to an average citizen or local organization, you requested Frederick County government pay the legal fees for the appeal.

By the time these hearings were held, the deadline to appeal was also nearing. Tell us a little more about this process and what led you to request Frederick County government to pay for an appeal and why you feel they said no.

Did your organization also include the City of Frederick government when discussing this issue or when asking for help with funding for an appeal?

BW -
Citizens don't start out on an issue this huge knowing everything there is to do....there is an enormous learning curve. We learned a lot from the successes and failures of other communities opposing lab development.

A lawsuit is a clear way to challenge an EIS if you don't believe it meets the legal standard. We believe that none of the lab EIS's meet NEPA requirements. But lawsuits are expensive, and we were unable to obtain a pro bono legal team. We asked the County to take this on in order to represent health and safety concerns in the community. Yes, we did also speak with the City. A legal process like this can take a very long time. It is expensive and politically fraught.

We've discovered that while lots of people are concerned about safety in the community, that this is a classic case of unequal power. There is a lot of money and political power invested in making sure things proceed as planned at the labs. I don't know whether or not a lawsuit would still be possible- but you have to look at the goals.

Frederick Citizens is going the lawsuit route. Our goal is to do whatever is possible to give citizens and elected officials a real voice in what goes on here, and to vastly improve how that works.

GW -
Again, my memory is that it was after the hearing process had been exhausted and Frederick county government had denied your request to fund an appeal, you and "Frederick Citizens for Bio-Lab Safety" decided to turn to Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) for assistance.

This was an interesting maneuver, as I believe Senator Mikulski was among those elected officials who helped originally to direct the expansion along with the necessary government funding to Fort Detrick.

Tell us about how you came to lobby Senator Mikulski for assistance and how it came to be that she requested the National Academy of Sciences to review the approval process.

What, in general was the request, why was this route chosen and what did you expect would result? We'll get to the recently released report and what it says in my next question.

BW -
We believe in lobbying everyone. And we did. Focusing on health and safety is very different from a goal of "shutting it down". We can all agree on better health and safety.

We prepared a formal petition for the National Academy Study, stating what we wanted to be evaluated. We sent this petition to the Army. We talked to both of our Senators about our concerns, and to the Board of County Commissioners about this alternative approach to dealing with the inadequate EIS.

The BoCC was very receptive. They developed their own request, and it was the BoCC who directly petitioned Senator Mikulski. The Senator responded immediately, and made it happen. The BoCC is quite invested in this study and in its outcome, and has been representing the community during this whole process. The Army eventually responded to the Frederick Citizen petition stating its confidence in its EIS and stating that the NAS review was not necessary.

Our request was to evaluate the scientific adequacy of the EIS. The National Academy cannot render legal opinions, but can comment on scientific adequacy. We listed essentially all of the concerns raised by the community in that Thanksgiving 2007 meeting before the county commissioners. We listed in detail, what we believed was lacking in the EIS, from transparency to the type of risk scenarios completed and not completed, to how the accident history at USAMRIID was described, to the big concerns such as insider threat.

GW -
On March 4, 2010, the National Academy of Sciences released their report entitled "Evaluation of the Health and Safety Risks of the new USAMRIID High Containment Facilities at Fort Detrick, Maryland".

I have read only parts of it along with a summary, but it almost appears to contradict itself. It appears to acknowledge the EIS did not include any effort to look at alternative sites and some community safety issues were not addressed.

It also appears they go on to recommend areas where safety issues should be addressed, including communication with the local medical community in regard to response to an incident.

Yet, they appear to conclude that measures were in place similar to those at the National Institutes for Health and the Center for Diseases Control. In addition, they seem to note that Congress had marked money for the construction of these facilities at this location, approvals had been granted and construction was already underway.

So, while the report appears to detail some health and safety issues which should be addressed and notes the EIS was insufficient and no effort was made to look at alternative sites, it stops short of requesting any further review, while acknowledging the start of construction.

Senator Mikulski, in a press release, thanked the National Academy of Sciences for their report and while noting the US Army and Ft. Detrick were under no obligation to do so, encouraged them to implement the health and safety suggestions spelled out in the report.

To someone who has not followed this as closely as you have Beth, this sounds to me like double speak.

As someone who has followed this from the beginning, please share with us your reaction to this report.

BW -
Yes the outcome of the NAS study was real double speak. The study scope in the end, included not just an evaluation of the EIS, but also of USAMRIID procedures.

On one hand the NAS agreed that the community was right- that we were fully vindicated. The NAS found the EIS to be not scientifically sound and inadequate in virtually every way we had found it to be. No alternative locations, methods not transparent, not credible risk scenarios, no evaluation of insider threats, no scenarios to evaluate the risks most likely to occur (such as escaping insects).

And then they said that it didn't matter, because USAMRIID has excellent procedures.

In addition, the NAS spoke at length about the poor relationship between the community and the labs, and made many excellent recommendations for addressing the many areas found lacking in the "interface" between the labs and the medical community. There are a lot of good recommendations that if well implemented will improve the labs' accountability to the community- and improve public safety.

But stating that it doesn't matter that we are STILL left without knowing the real risks is deeply disturbing. That says that the law isn't relevant. We can't accept that. We need NEPA to protect us. We understand NEPA has often become an irrelevant paper chase- and that needs to be fixed.

We need to fix the fact that contractors are hired by agencies to do EIS's for the folks who need a certain outcome. The process needs to be independent, not the fox minding the henhouse.

Senator Mikulski has demanded that the Army implement the recommendations. They are not legally required to do so- but we'd like to see folks write her and ask her to keep the pressure on. Pressure from a powerful Senator means something.

Scientists and communities look at risk very differently. Scientists have a specific, narrow view. The view of the community is complex, and is wrapped up in trust or lack of trust in the institution, in how we think the community will be impacted, and in whether or not we had any choice in the matter.

We are asking the Senator to demand that we still have a proper evaluation of risk. We have that right, and believe it needs to be publicly debated.

GW -
Why build this facility here remains the billion dollar question, as any minor mishap, no matter how remote a possibility, could have severe consequences due to it is located in a heavily populated area.

Beth, for my last question today, do you feel your questions of concern have been addressed? and if not, where do you and "Frederick Citizens for Bio-Lab Safety" go from here?

BW -
Why here? There's lots of official reasons.

We say that what started out as a USAMRIID of moderate size on the outskirts of a small city- is now growing into the largest biodefense lab complex in the world in the middle of the second largest city in Maryland.

Clearly we don't think these labs should be in a populated area. A more fundamental question is why on earth this country is funding so much of this kind of research in the first place. We think this makes us much less safe. The General Accountability Office, several Congressional Committees, lots of scientists, arms control experts and thousands of citizens agree. But THAT's a matter to take up in Washington.

Imagine if we used these terrific lab facilities to fund research on established public health threats? Imagine Frederick as a center for public health research!

Where do we go from here? We're going to focus on making sure the recommendations get properly implemented, and will continue to ask a lot of questions about the labs. We'll continue to lobby. We need everyone's support and interest. People can be supportive by writing our elected officials, by learning more or by getting more involved. They can email me for more info.

Thanks George!

GW - Beth, I want to thank you for being my guest today and sharing your thoughts on such an important local issue. You may email Beth Willis at


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice comprehensive responses - Note: "an assumption that pathogens could not possibly escape, so there was no evaluation of what would happen if they did. There was a short statement that "insider threat" was not likely and not easy to statistically characterize, so it was not considered. We were dumbfounded."

- nuff said!