Tensions are brewing between the Army and some residents of Frederick, Md., after a stinging National Research Council report ordered by the government said that the planned risk-assessment of a new facility at Ft. Detrick isn’t adequate for assessing the risk to the public from potential accidents at the lab where deadly diseases will be studied.
The facility will be used for conducting vaccine and drug research to protect against outbreaks of diseases, including anthrax, tularemia, brucellosis, encephalitis, plague and Ebola.
The NRC report said there are substantial holes in the plan to assess the facility’s risk to the community and the environment. A researcher close to the project said he would give the risk assessment work plan for the new lab a C- if he had to grade it.
“We reviewed the work plan, and our findings were that, as laid out, it will not lead to a robust estimate of risk,” said Charles Haas, chair of the NRC committee.
Areas in which the risk assessment isn’t sufficient, according to the report, include: a limited range of potential occupational exposures, no exploration of indirect consequences, effects of design changes, lack of a failure analysis, and the pathogen maps used do not explore all potential routes of exposure.
Ft. Detrick is already home to several biodefense facilities. The city of Frederick established a Containment Laboratory Community Advisory Committee to address the public’s growing concerns about safety.
“Our primary role is to hear the public’s concerns, communicate productively with the people who run the labs, and actually obtain answers to the community’s concerns,” said Committee Chair Beth Willis.
In light of the dismal NRC report, people are on alert. “This is a community of 65,000 people right here in Frederick and 250,000 in the county,” Willis said. “This is of concern to the community.”
The NRC report found that the risk assessment plan for the new facility doesn’t proactively assess the likelihood and consequences of all potential events, but focuses on those that are most probable.
“Unlikely events are not impossible, and it is the unprecedented event that often has resulted in severe outcomes,” the report said.
“They need to do a more thorough evaluation of the potential events that could occur,” Haas said. “Whether or not they prove to be the most serious, those are the ones that result in the highest level of concern in adjacent communities.”
Haas said the Army is not required to follow the committee’s recommendations. He said the next step is for Maj. Gen. James Gilman, commander at Ft. Detrick, and his staff to review the report and decide how to proceed.
Army spokeswoman Lori Calvillo said the Army is “in the process of reassessing the need for the facility and it would be premature to have a detailed discussion until outcomes are available in December.”
But community leaders aren’t waiting until then to make their opinions clear.
Willis said she hopes the Army will take the NRC’s recommendations seriously.
“That’s a good thing that they’re getting feedback before they’re doing the actual assessment, and we’re certainly hopeful that they’ll take all of these recommendations into account,” she said.
Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, both Democrats, issued a joint statement Friday urging the Army to carefully consider the committee’s recommendations in order to protect the workers and the surrounding community.
“The report points out a number of areas of concern, including that the risk assessment is not ‘sufficient’ to reduce or prevent a potentially hazardous situation from occurring,” the press release said.
A thorough risk assessment isn’t cheap, according to Willis, and she said she is concerned that cost in tight budget times may trump safety.
“This entire system of biodefense labs is part of our federal policy,” she said. “I think how this is handled speaks to concerns about whether, in these tight budget times, there will be as much emphasis on safety as there should be.”
Willis said the government has an obligation to inform the people of Frederick.
“The community didn’t have a choice in the labs coming here, but the community has a right to understand how the Department of Defense, and other federal agencies, are defining an acceptable risk,” she said. “That needs to be made clear to us. So far that hasn’t been done, and we hope it will be when this new risk assessment is actually created.”