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June 2, 2003
Volume 81, Number 22 
CENEAR 81 22 p. 12 
ISSN 0009-2347




Excavation of a remote site uncovers vials of live bacteria, toxic chemicals


The Army has unearthed remnants of a former weapons program, not in Iraq but at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. On a remote part of the installation, which once produced chemical and biological weapons, the Army has dug up 113 bacteria-containing vials but no chemical or biological warfare agents. Most of the vials contain live bacteria, including nonvirulent strains of anthrax.

EXHUMED Video grab shows Army workers performing excavation operations at Fort Detrick, Md. Your browser may not support display of this image. ARMY PHOTO


About 12 years ago, monitoring wells in remote Area B-11 of Fort Detrick detected high levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE) in groundwater. TCE, a cleaning solvent, and PCE, a degreasing agent, were detected at levels hundreds of times above EPA's maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 5 ppb.

When the Army tested 33 nearby residential wells, it found seven with unacceptably high levels of these potential carcinogens. At the Army's expense, these seven homes were connected to other water supplies.

The Army does not have an inventory of what was dumped in Area B-11's four unlined pits. But the Army suspects that TCE and PCE leaked from corroded drums dumped into the pits and then leached into groundwater.

Actual excavation of the 400-acre site to remove toxic chemicals and medical and lab waste buried from 1955 to 1970 began two years ago. "This is the only excavation of this magnitude at Fort Detrick," Army spokesman Chuck Dasey says. It is expected to cost more than $25 million.

Under a pressurized, air-filtered tent the size of a football field, workers in protective suits have removed 2,005 tons of hazardous waste and contaminated soil from Pit 1, the largest pit. In addition to vials of live Brucella melitensis, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Bacillus anthracis, workers have also removed more than 40 drums, some containing herbicides, and 50 gas- and liquid-containing cylinders.

Traces of dioxins found in agent orange, a defoliant used in the Vietnam War, have been detected in Pit 1, but no vials of viruses have been found, even though Fort Detrick actively made viral as well as bacterial biological weapons until 1969.

Tainted soil and waste from Pit 1 has been processed and, if pathogen-free, sealed in containers and shipped to a hazardous waste disposal site in Texas.

EPA Region III spokesman David Sternberg says, "Current monitoring indicates that no contamination above the MCL for TCE and PCE is reaching beyond the property line, but significant contamination remains inside the base at Area B."

Cleanup of the other three much smaller pits began in early May. Once restored, by early next year, Area B-11 will be used for military training.

Chemical & Engineering News 
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

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