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Last Updated

13 May 2003

Source: Washington Times, May 13, 2003

Officials call water safe from anthrax


The mayor of Frederick today will reassure the city that its water supply is not threatened by anthrax, despite reports the FBI is searching a pond in the city watershed for evidence of a makeshift biowarfare lab used in the 2001 anthrax mail attacks.

Mayor Jennifer Dougherty told The Washington Times that the FBI assured her that the pond did not pose a public health threat, and that she wanted to pass that information on to the public today at a 10 a.m. news conference.

She will be joined at the news conference by Frederick Police Chief Kim Dine, who receives regular updates from the FBI about its activity in and around the city.

"They have informed me that they have not uncovered anything yet that poses any threat to anyone here or any body of water," Chief Dine said yesterday.

The FBI is considering draining the spring-fed pond in the Frederick Municipal Forest to search the muck for more clues to the anthrax attacks nearly 19 months ago that killed five persons and sickened 13 others.

The pond under FBI scrutiny is roughly an acre in size and 10 feet deep. It is the largest pond in a cluster of five located about eight miles from the city limits in the Frederick Municipal Forest, a stretch of woods in the Catoctin Mountains that serves as the city's watershed.

Mrs. Dougherty said FBI divers began searching the pond in December and January. The searches were aided by scientists from nearby Fort Detrick, home to the Army's germ-warfare lab, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID).

At that time, when the divers uncovered evidence anthrax may have been handled in or near the pond, the FBI and USAMRIID scientist advised Mrs. Dougherty the city was safe.

"They assured me that there was nothing found that would threaten the water supply," Mrs. Dougherty told The Times. "Since the USAMRIID scientists live here, I have no reason to believe they would mislead us."

FBI spokeswoman Debra Weierman confirmed yesterday that Frederick did not appear to be at risk.

"Based on water testing already conducted, there is no indication of a threat to public health or safety associated with our search activities," she said. She declined to comment on the status of the searches or reports of evidence already uncovered at the pond.

Frederick's more than 52,000 residents people used to living in the shadow of the nation's premier germ-warfare lab at Fort Detrick appear to be taking in stride this latest hometown twist in the anthrax investigation.

Stephen Johnson, manager of the Safeway supermarket in Frederick, said he hasn't seen a spike in sales of bottled water. "It's not like we've had a run on it," he said. "Our shelves are completely full."

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that this winter the divers found instruments that could have been used to pack the deadly spores into envelopes without infecting the culprit or leaving traces in homes, buildings or on open land.

Two sources familiar with the items recovered from one of the ponds described a clear box, with holes that could accommodate gloves to protect the user during work. So-called glove boxes are commonly used to handle dangerous pathogens. Vials wrapped in plastic also were recovered.

For protection against airborne bacteria that might be released, a person could put envelopes and secured anthrax powder into the box, then wade into shallow water and submerge it to put the bacteria into the envelopes underwater, some involved in the case believe, the newspaper reported. Afterward, the envelopes could have been sealed inside plastic bags to be removed from the underwater chamber.

The newspaper story reignited media interest in Frederick, which often has been at the center of the anthrax investigation.

Fort Detrick's germ-warfare experts played a leading role in analyzing the anthrax-laced letters sent to then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, and others. The FBI later focused on Fort Detrick as a potential source of the weaponized anthrax and also on former USAMRIID workers as potential bioterror suspects.

"It is not a surprise to me that they are here or that they keep coming back," Miss Dougherty said of the FBI's continued interest in Frederick and the pond. "I don't know that they found anything, but I know that they keep looking."

In June 2002, the FBI and U.S. Postal Service agents searched the Frederick apartment of Steven J. Hatfill, a former USAMRIID worker and the only individual named as a "person of interest" in the anthrax case.

Mr. Hatfill has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence.

The FBI returned at least two more times to Mr. Hatfill's old apartment located just outside Fort Detrick's main gate. Agents searched it in August and June of 2002.

Some investigators said the pond theory is the result of the FBI's interest in Mr. Hatfill, according to the Post story.

The pond findings offer physical evidence in a case that so far has been built almost exclusively on circumstantial clues, the newspaper quoted sources as saying.

Ms. Weierman, the FBI spokeswoman, declined to give details about the investigation beyond saying, "We have a significant investigation that is continuing, and we are making progress."