Stevens may seek weapons hearings

Defense Department outlines testing of chemical, biological weapons in Alaska

Posted: Friday, October 11, 2002

FAIRBANKS - Details of a dozen chemical and biological weapons testing programs at Fort Greely were released Wednesday, including one in which soldiers in protective suits walked through contaminated areas.

Sen. Ted Stevens is considering calling for congressional hearings to learn more about chemical and biological weapons tests the Army conducted near Fort Greely in the 1960s.

"Certainly there's got to be a follow-up to find out where it was, what happened, and do some investigating to see if anyone was harmed by it," Stevens, an Alaska Republican, said Thursday.

The release of further information was part of an effort to identify whether soldiers who participated in the tests have developed health problems.

The Army's testing of nerve agents such as VX liquid, the military's deadliest nerve agent, and sarin gas, another nerve-damaging chemical, at Fort Greely has been public for several years, but Pentagon fact sheets provided specifics about the methods and numbers of tests.

Fort Greely is just south of Delta Junction about 100 miles south of Fairbanks.

The military placed sarin gas and VX in artillery shells and rockets that were launched into the woods or detonated in place on the Gerstle River Test Site about 30 miles southeast of Delta Junction. The military then studied how the chemicals dispersed, including how well they stuck to mannequins dressed in cold weather gear.

The tests, given names such as "Devil Hole," "Sun Down," and "Whistle Down," were conducted from 1962 through 1967.

VX, a sticky liquid, also was placed in land mines detonated at ground level and in an unidentified body of water on the Gerstle River site.

In one test, a VX-laden mine was detonated under a vehicle to study the resulting contamination. In another test, soldiers in suits and masks walked through a VX-splattered area to see how much toxin they picked up while walking.

The mine tests, dubbed "Elk Hunt," occurred in the summers of 1964 and 1965.

The military also sprayed bacteria that cause tularemia, a potentially life-threatening infection, and tested its dispersal in the woods. Three other types of bacteria, one related to anthrax but considered benign, were sprayed as well.

The bacteria tests were conducted "in the Tanana Valley near Fort Greely" and "in the area of Delta Creek," which drains an area southwest of Delta Junction, between 1964 and 1967, the fact sheets said.

The fact sheets do not give details about what the military did with chemicals and bacteria once testing was done or what ultimately happened to the ammunition, clothing and vehicles that they contaminated. Such information is not likely to be released, said Jim Turner, a Pentagon spokesman.

"That is going to be as much detail as we're going to have," he told the Washington bureau of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

The only information being declassified is what is relevant to veterans' health issues, he said.

The Defense Department is giving the information to the Veterans Administration and making it public to help people who worked on the projects get health care and establish disability claims.

No connection between veterans' health problems and their work with chemical and biological weapons has been confirmed, according to department officials.

A Defense Department spokeswoman said residents of the Fort Greely and Delta Junction area have little reason to worry about accidental or residual exposure today. The chemical or biological agents used in the tests would have degraded in hours or weeks after release, said Barbara Goodno, a public affairs director for the Deployment Health Support Directorate in Washington, D.C.

Also, she said, experts checked records for unexploded shells and mines.

"That's not a concern," she said.

Goodno said experts in the Defense Department say the military conducted numerous cleanups of the chemical weapons from 1968 to 1971. The weapons were decontaminated, detonated and buried in pits, she said.

At the Gerstle River site, five pits have been investigated and four are closed cases. The fifth should be cleaned up within the next few years, she said.

Another site, known as the Gerstle River expansion area, was transferred to the state in 1972 and has been cleaned, she said.

Pam Miller, director of the Anchorage-based Alaska Community Action on Toxics, remains skeptical.

"I still don't believe there has been full disclosure on what went on there," she said.

The burial of chemicals in unlined landfills along the Gerstle River is particularly worrisome, she said.

The military released bacteria in three programs. The first program, "Night Train," occurred between November 1963 and January 1964. Testers sprayed Bacillus globigii from a tank mounted on F-105 and F-100 aircraft and on a personnel carrier. The spraying was done "in the vicinity of Fort Greely," the fact sheets said.

Bacillus globigii is common in soils and is not considered harmful except when it infects people with depressed immune systems.

The two other bacterial releases were with monkeys nearby to test whether they would become infected.

From November 1966 through mid-February 1967, "in the Tanana Valley of central Alaska near Fort Greely," the military released four bacterias - Bacillus globigii, Serratia marcenscens, Escherichia coli and Francisella tularensis. The operation was dubbed "Red Cloud."

In the summer of 1967, it released the same mix, without the Bacillus bacteria, in operation "Watch Dog."

In winter, the bacteria were placed in "bomblets" shot from a tower-mounted gun into a spruce forest. They also were spread with aerosol machines. Sampling crews downwind stayed in "pressurized safety citadels," the fact sheets said.

Francisella tularensis can cause tularemia, a severe infection. In Interior Alaska, it occurs naturally in wild animals such as snowshoe hares. About 6 percent of the people who contract the disease die, according to the VA.

Serratia marcenscens, a common bacteria, is considered benign. But researchers at the University of Georgia in June announced that the bacteria caused "white pox," the disease that has killed 85 percent of elkhorn coral in the Florida Keys.

E. coli also is a common intestinal bacteria that can cause dangerous infections when it gets into other organs.

More fact sheets on the Defense Department's chemical and biological weapons programs are being developed, according to a department Web site.

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