Dugway Proving Ground is going forward with an expansion of a controversial facility where biological toxins and agents are tested.
Last week, Salt Lake City-based Big-D Construction was awarded a $22.6 million contract to add 41,000 square feet to Dugway’s current 33,150-square-foot Lothar Salomon Life Sciences Test Facility. The project is scheduled to start next spring and expected to be complete by May 2015.
The expansion will allow the military to develop and test detection, identification, protection and decontamination equipment for the armed forces and first responders, according to Bonnie Robinson, public information officer for Dugway.
“The Department of Defense is concerned about the threat to the security of the United States by hostile nations and terrorist organizations that could pose a significant danger to both civilian populations and the Armed Forces of the United States. The concern is the threat of biological warfare,” she said in a statement. “Our job at Dugway Proving Ground is to help protect our service members, first responders and the American citizens from a biological attack by ensuring that warfighters and the responders both have the best protective gear and testing and decontamination equipment to ensure a quick and successful response.”
According to Robinson, the Life Sciences Test Facility is the only Department of Defense facility certified to test developmental equipment with aerosolized agents, including bacteria, viruses and biological toxins.
The current building, dedicated in 1998, has 23 offices and 30 laboratories, and is designed to house 22 employees, but the department now has 57 people, said Robinson. Thirty-two people — mainly administrators and clerical employees — are working in trailers located outside the facility. In the new facility, 46 offices for scientists and administrative personnel will be available, and a conference room with a capacity of 75 people will be implemented. The existing facility will also be renovated to allow for more thorough integration with the new addition.
Douglas Andersen, chief of the Life Sciences Division, said the expansion would allow all employees to work under the same roof, as well as allowing for further compartmentalization and separation of projects.
“A significant portion of the addition will be administrative space and will allow us to locate personnel closer to the laboratory areas where they work,” he said. “Overall, projects will be similar to the past, but our capacity [for testing] will increase, and we will be able to set aside specific labs for specific test programs and processes.”
Environmental and citizens groups have opposed the expansion of the Life Sciences Test Facility since it was first proposed in 1990.
In 2001, during a nationwide anthrax scare during which five people were killed by a weaponized form of the bacteria delivered by mail, concerns were voiced from outside groups about the culturization of the same type of anthrax used in the attacks. An investigation by the Federal Bureau of Intelligence found that the spores being used in the attacks and those being tested at Dugway were of the same strain, and that the man suspected for the attacks, Bruce Edwards Ivins, who had previously worked in biodefense labs at Fort Detrick in Maryland, had received some material from Dugway in 1997. However, at the time of the attacks, none of Dugway’s inventory was unaccounted for.
When the life sciences program was still merely a proposal, in 1990, critics expressed relief when the facility was designated biosafety level 3, not BSL 4. The biosafety scale ranges from BSL 1 to BLS 4, with BSL 1, which is commonly the level of hazardousness found in a school laboratory, indicating agents not known to consistently cause disease in healthy adults, and BSL 4 indicating dangerous agents that pose a high risk of infection and for which treatments are not available.
Andersen said the laboratory space in the expanded facility will be roughly 60 percent BSL 2 and 40 percent BSL 3. Having more space would allow some labs to be designated for specific types of projects, as well as different classifications.
“One significant advantage of the addition is that it will allow us to designate specific labs for molecular biology only, and allow us to facilitate better work flow and recommended standard practices,” he said. “The expansion will allow us to conduct concurrent tests using BSL 3 containment aerosol chambers, which had been somewhat restricted by space prior to the addition.”
Andersen said the main work of the Life Sciences Test Facility is testing biological detection systems — equipment used by soldiers to allow the detection of biological agents in the air so they can take the necessary measures to protect themselves and minimize exposure. Most projects are for the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, he said, though one test is currently being conducted for the Japanese Ministry of Defense.
Robinson said in addition to the expansion of laboratory space, the addition means more space for storage and mechanical systems, such as emergency generators to provide an uninterruptable power supply.
The Life Sciences Test Facility is located about 15 miles inside the border of Dugway Proving Ground in the West Desert Test Center. Public meetings about the possibility of the expansion were held in February 2009 in both Salt Lake and Tooele.
In 2008, a similar facility at Dugway, the Baker Laboratory, was remodeled and expanded. That expansion added more than 19,000 square feet, and allowed the building to house several projects to test for and resist biological agents.