Opening the Gates
The world is still confused about Fort Detrick. Even the men and women who worked at Fort Detrick prior to 1971 expect Fort Detrick to be a virtual fortress, steeped in secrecy and intrigue.
A booklet prepared by the Public Affairs Office in 1981 noted with clarity:
The secret about Fort Detrick is that there is no secret!
More than one former laboratory worker has been amazed that he or she could gain unrestricted access to Fort Detrick on such occasions as Armed Forces Day. May 1978 marked the first time in 7 years that an open house was held at Fort Detrick to honor the annual Armed Forces Day. Colonel Robert M. Shaw, Jr., commander from 1976 to 1980, agreed to open the gates. The crowds weren't overwhelming, but the weather was cool and damp and Frederick had seen locked gates for many years.
Nevertheless, that renewed emphasis on educating the community took hold and the 14th consecutive open house was held in May 1992. The crowds were big and the displays varied.
A man from Thurmont, Maryland, who claimed to be a military policeman for the World War II Camp Detrick, was thrilled to be able to return and see his old Army camp in 1978. He recalled having walked several posts carrying a loaded .45 caliber pistol and Thompson Submachine Gun. "We were told to shoot first and ask questions later," he recalled.
Another visitor asked the public affairs officer where the underground laboratory was located. It was an obvious confusion with Fort Ritchie's Site R underground command post, but the question reflected a continuing distrust of what was "really" going on at Fort Detrick.
In the "good old days," former employees admit they had no idea what was taking place in the next building. Fort Detrick had compounds surrounding each major laboratory or division. Access to the front gate did not mean access to any particular laboratory. To date, former scientists still keep quiet about their work. Several continue to keep in touch and ask permission when asked for interviews by news reporters. They are still unsure to what extent they should discuss activities in which they were involved. The nature of their work in some cases may still require silence because of its impact on the national security.
A group calling itself Detrick University held a reunion in Frederick in August 1988. The group included men who had been drafted or volunteered to be drafted at the start of the Korean War. Each of them held college degrees and were engineers of all types or trained in laboratory science or micro-biology.
They stood in the foyer of the new Goodloe E. Byron Building, the new post headquarters, and marveled at the changes, commenting about the difference in security compared to 1951-52.
In spite of their college degrees, they had been enlisted men. They admitted to having as their primary goal completing the required term of service and getting on with their professional and private lives. In the meantime, they considered Fort Detrick a place where they could perfect their skills, working in one of the finest research centers in the Free World.
"We were an unruly group," one said, "but we did our job and we are proud of our accomplishments."
Such was the spirit of the team at Camp Detrick.
In 1992, two groups of Navy veterans returned to Fort Detrick for a reunion, and a number of the former WAAC members returned in August 1992.
A distinguished group of former scientists, technicians, engineering personnel, administrative specialists, and other employees met for the first time in more than 25 years in August 1992. They renewed old friendships and discussed the numerous achievements of Camp and Fort Detrick. It was organized by Alan M. Miller and Dr. William G. Roessler. The reunion included a talk by Dr. Housewright, who first was assigned to Camp Detrick as a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander.
He said that only today could the group look back and realize what a tremendous impact the original scientific and technical team had on winning the war in Europe and Japan, as well as the war on disease.
The need for maximum security was evident from the time George Merck and Dr. Arnold G. Wedum were challenged with setting up the laboratories at Camp Detrick, Housewright commented.
Any challenge to security was overcome with force. Alex Bryant, who arrived at Fort Detrick as a private, recalled his brush with security problems when he took Christmas leave in 1945.
Each soldier presented his identification card and then was issued a security pass for access to the front gate, then located next to Building 201, the former airplane hangar. The pass was surrendered to the security guard when leaving the post.
Bryant packed his overnight bag and signed out at the gate, forgetting to surrender his pass. When he returned from leave, Bryant approached the guard, reached for his security pass and found his identification card. He was "arrested" on the spot and taken to the security office.
The situation was considered a security breach and for several hours Bryant was questioned about his pass and why he had not surrendered it. He was also questioned about persons he met while on leave and what he might have done with his pass. Eventually he was released with a stern warning.
"I could have been court martialed or transferred on the spot. That happened to a lot of guys," Bryant said.
Scientists kept a loaded .45 caliber pistol at their side or on the workbench next to them. The compound surrounding the so-called "Black Maria," where offensive research first took place, was guarded by a man on foot and a soldier in the guard tower-each equipped with a Thompson Submachine Gun.
Bryant said the Black Maria, a wooden rectangular building covered in tar paper, was the first laboratory built. The original hangar had been modified to include laboratories and a pilot plant facility for culturing such organisms as anthrax.
The Black Maria was constructed by carpenters as a mere shell. Scientists then went into the perimeter fence and a crane lifted pipes, electrical wiring, and other equipment into the compound. The scientists put the laboratory together. Bryant was in charge of the boiler outside the compound and recalled incinerating dead rats with great secrecy from the Black Maria.
Each soldier or civilian employee of the laboratory signed a waiver that granted the U.S. Government all rights to their remains if they died while on duty or as a result of a laboratory- acquired illness.
Four men are verified as having died while in service at Camp and Fort Detrick. In 1944, a young Army lieutenant died instantly in Building 201 when a pump exploded. No further information has been obtained on the incident, which was handled quietly.
Mr. William Allen Boyles, a 46-year-old microbiologist, contracted anthrax and died November 25, 1951. Boyles Street was named in his memory.
On July 5, 1958, Mr. Joel Eugene Willard, 53, an electrician with the facilities engineer, also died of pulmonary anthrax. Willard Place was named in his honor.
Mr. Albert Nickel, 53, an animal caretaker, died after being bitten by an animal infected with Machupo Virus. Nickel Place was named in his honor.
Despite these untimely and tragic deaths, Fort Detrick continues to have a remarkable safety record.
The inflexible safety rules sometimes irked scientists, who felt that the required procedures delayed their research projects ... Dr. [Ira] Baldwin refused to permit any relaxation of the safety rules that, as he emphasized, were designed as much for the protection of the community as for the safeguarding of the health researchers.
Dr. Wedum spoke to a national media organization in 1958 and emphasized the media's preoccupation with safety at Fort Detrick while neglecting safety records of industry.
He said that tremendous successes had been achieved in reducing disabling occupational illness at Fort Detrick between 1943 and 1958. For technical personnel the rate was 55 such illnesses per million man hours from 1943-45. That improved to 11.45 illnesses per million man hours in 1958. He pointed out these figures concern personnel who were greatly at risk, working with organisms for which vaccines existed for only a few.
Workers are vaccinated when vaccines are available, but we do not have effective vaccines for all the diseases we study. One of the most effective medically prophylactic measures depends upon early diagnosis of illness ... [We] consider every illness in an employee exposed to an infectious risk to be an occupational illness until it is proved otherwise.
Kenneth Bartgis, safety manager for the U.S. Army Biomedical Research and Development Laboratory (USABRDL), said he attended a laboratory safety managers conference in 1992 and more than 60 percent of the information was credited to lessons learned and shared at Fort Detrick. The conference was conducted at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration National Training Institute, Chicago.
The expertise also prompted NASA to seek Fort Detrick's expertise and assistance in designing and building its new space laboratory in Houston, Texas. The building ventilation systems, laboratory hood configurations, and other designs were fashioned after existing Fort Detrick BW facilities.
The safety considerations prompted Dr. Baldwin to insist on separate water and sewer processing systems. The H.K. Ferguson Company was contracted to design the first steam sterilization systems. The next designs were completed by laboratory engineers. Potentially contaminated waste from the laboratories is still carried in the system to 15 holding tanks. The liquid waste is steam sterilized before being processed as normal sewage.
The design was adopted by the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia.
To date, no laboratory accident has occurred that affected the community. Fort Detrick has been accused on many occasions of having caused a problem. Files are jammed with news clippings from front page articles charging Fort Detrick as the culprit in a community environmental problem. The installation has been an obvious target because of the potential to cause such problems, but safety systems have proved their trust and investment.
In the early 1970s, a farmer charged that effluent from the Fort Detrick Sewage Treatment Plant was responsible for the death of several of his milk cows. An extensive investigation revealed the cows had died as the result of eating contaminated feed. The feed manufacturer was held responsible.
Fort Detrick was charged during the 1970s as having contaminated Carroll Creek with petroleum. It took more than 4 years to discover a service station had defective storage tanks, which leaked gasoline into the ground water.
In 1980, a Fort Detrick contractor accepted blame for paint that was carried downwind and damaged several cars. One situation was never resolved involving an extensive layer of soot which landed in the Villa Estates area, south of Fort Detrick. The boiler plant was blamed as a possible source of the soot.
A restaurateur on Rosemont Avenue carried on a justifiable running battle with Fort Detrick before a new incinerator was installed in 1974. Residue from the old incinerator plant caused heavy smoke and particulates to shower the Rosemont Avenue area under certain weather conditions. It was not a pleasant situation for the restaurateur. The environmentally approved incinerator with its stack scrubbers solved the problem.
In 1979, Fort Detrick was praised by the state and federal government for its new incinerator and the major advance it represented in the quest to "clean up the air in Maryland." However, 3 months later, a news report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed that the federal government was one of the top polluters in Maryland. Fort Detrick was on the list accused of polluting the air. This caused a predictable local media storm until the EPA revised its list and admitted it had made a mistake, saying, at one time Fort Detrick was guilty of polluting the air from its incinerator. The apology was a small news item on a back page.
The waste water treatment plant still ranks as one of the best in Maryland. Its process is responsible for continuing to discharge cleaner water into the Monocacy River than it takes out of the river.
Area B was established as a proving ground in the former BW program. It was laid out in a circular grid, a series of seven concentric circles with measurement devices from 50 feet to 1,000 feet. It was designed to test the flow of materials through the air. The remnants of monitoring devices may still be seen.
In its history, Area B has been used as a sanitary landfill and disposal site. When the demilitarization program began in 1971, destruction of BW agents and stockpiles was a top priority effort requiring elaborate safety measures. All the technology learned at Fort Detrick was used to decontaminate buildings, to test for presence of live organisms, and to ensure debris was free of contamination.
No residue from destruction of biological materials was deposited at Area B before it was certified safe by experts. Any small amounts of excess chemicals buried at Area B were disposed in the accepted industry manner, but no more than 5 gallons per week poured into an open pit. A dye marker was added to check for leaching into the ground water, but none was ever detected.
Another environmental and media storm was created in 1977 when a former Fort Detrick researcher charged that the installation might be guilty of polluting the ground water because he "had heard" that toxic materials were buried at Area B. This was given credibility by a report prepared for the Army Environmental Hygiene Agency (AEHA) based on a 4-day visit to Fort Detrick and interviews during that period with employees and a review of the remaining records from the demilitarization program (1969-1973).
The report alleged the possibility of live agents having been buried in Area B through animal carcasses and sludge from the steam sterilization system. It also alleged a hazard probably existed from disposed chemicals, specifically chemical herbicides.
The Surgeon General of the Army, in concert with U.S. Army Health Services Command and other federal regulatory agencies, established a review panel to look into the allegations. After 6 months of deliberations, the panel determined no hazard existed from biological materials, but it seemed prudent to test the ground water for the presence of certain herbicides. In 1982 and 1983, the ground water was tested using approximately 28 test wells. The first series provided the good news that no herbicides were present in any more than detectable amounts. The second set of tests using four new monitoring wells was analyzed using a priority pollutant scan, which tested for the presence of more than 144 chemical substances. A review of results by the Army and state of Maryland experts brought agreement that the ground water was essentially clean.
The extensive testing, which cost in excess of $50,000, again underscored the efficacy of Fort Detrick's safety systems, its knowledge, and practical application of that knowledge and in-place systems. However, those systems were challenged again 10 years later when contamination suddenly appeared in one, then other monitoring wells near the former skeet range.
Fort Detrick's own monitoring of ground water in Area B from 1982 was a diligent effort for early detection of any problems that might arise. In March 1991, the presence of trichloroethylene (TCE) was detected in one monitoring well. That contamination had spread to other Area B monitoring wells with the additional contamination by perchloroethylene (PCE) in two wells fed from off-post water sources. The EPA established enforceable drinking water standards, or maximum contaminant levels, to reduce the risk of cancer or other adverse effects that have been observed in laboratory animals. The EPA set the TCE and PCE Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) standard for drinking water at five parts per billion.
After 15 months of reporting the contamination, Fort Detrick was assisted by the AEHA to assess better means of monitoring the detected contamination. With AEHA's assistance, more data was acquired through 11 new monitoring wells. The Maryland Department of the Environment reacted to the reported information by testing seven residential wells in the immediate vicinity of Area B. It found three water sources above the allowable limit for TCE and/or PCE, all clustered on Montevue Lane, down "gradient" from the Area B contamination. Subsequent tests off post were not indicative of any widespread problem because contaminated off-post wells, including those at or above the MCL, were located in a cluster on Montevue Lane. Residential wells on Shookstown Road, Kemp Lane, Rocky Springs Road, and adjacent roads were free of such volatile hydrocarbons as TCE or PCE.
Fort Detrick cooperated immediately with State officials and the Army Environmental Center began an extensive remediation site investigation to determine if the contamination was originating from an old landfill site on Area B. The State promised to conduct its separate investigation of several other potential sources of contamination. In the meantime, the ground water contamination problem at Area B was a cause for concern and required extensive remediation efforts.
No water is consumed from Area B wells, which is used as a research animal farm site by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), as an antennae site by the 1110th U.S. Army Signal Battalion, and storage and landfill site by U.S. Army Garrison.
The so-called "ghost of Area B," in the words of then Commander Colonel Mark L. Hoke, was dispensed with temporarily in 1983 with the favorable test results on the ground water, but it wasn't until 1988 that Commander Colonel Richard W. Hauer, Jr. exorcised the "ghost of Building 470."
Building 470 was built in 1952 as a pilot plant where quantities of agents were cultured. It was a massive operation and part of the offensive research program.
Efforts to demilitarize Fort Detrick included cleaning up Building 470, a facility more than seven stories tall, containing large tanks and ringed with catwalks from top to bottom. The primary agent grown at the pilot plant was Bacillus anthracis, a dangerous organism that causes the disease anthrax, which can lie dormant for thousands of years in a spore state. When dislodged from its hiding place, it can become a viable killer if it lodges in a compatible atmosphere. Human and animal lungs are perfect environments for the organism to break from its suspended state. It can kill with "great episode" within 3 days.
Anthrax can lodge in such places as minute cracks in concrete. Thus, cleaning Building 470 was expected to be a major accomplishment. Using techniques devised by Dr. Phillips, Dr. Wedum, Dr. Baldwin, and other safety experts, the team decontaminated the building three times. After using special chemicals and monitoring devices, Dr. Wedum, Everett Hanel, and the review team declared that Building 470 "appeared" clear of dangerous organisms. They, however, noted that because of the nature of anthrax they could not state that Building 470 was 100 percent clean. The building had no other purpose than use as a pilot plant and no plans existed for it to be converted for any other use.
Building 470 was locked with access restricted to engineering personnel, who continued to monitor the building. The building became a symbol of what used to be at Fort Detrick and many inaccurate stories circulated that it was sealed because of the danger it represented to the community and individuals.
The real danger, however, was not from anthrax, but from the thousands of pigeons roosting in its rafters and air conditioning cooling towers. Pigeon guano had piled up in the stairwells from years of neglect. The cooling towers were removed in 1981 and cleanup finally begun in 1985.
Although Colonel Hoke had determined Fort Detrick, and especially the Pilot Plant, represented a national resource in case the offensive program were restarted, Building 470 represented a "white elephant." It was Army property in the midst of the Frederick Cancer Research Facility campus.
The building could not be destroyed without elaborate and expensive preparations. It also offered little to the Army because of its location and vertical design. It did, however, offer 44,000 square feet of usable space if the National Cancer Institute (NCI) invested money in renovations.
Colonel Hauer signed over the building to the Department of Health and Human Services in 1988 and renovations were planned to turn it into a useful support facility. Thus, in the words of former President Richard M. Nixon, the last vestige of the offensive program, the last sword-as it were-was turned into a plowshare.