A SENTENCE OF DEATH FOR DEADLY MD. TOWER



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Last Updated

04 Feb 2003

Source: Washington Post, February 4, 2003

A Sentence of Death For Deadly Md. Tower

Demolition Planned at Bioweapons Site

By David Snyder, Washington Post Staff Writer

An icon of the nation's long-defunct biological weapons program -- a seven-story tower in Frederick that once produced anthrax slurry by the gallons -- has been slated for demolition after standing vacant for more than three decades, officials at the National Cancer Institute said yesterday.

Since it was shut down in 1969, Building 470 has become something of a lightning rod for suspicion. Talk of demolishing the building, the largest of dozens on the campus of Fort Detrick once used for biological weapons research, has for years spurred concerns that the biological horrors within could contaminate Frederick, which surrounds Fort Detrick.

But officials with the National Cancer Institute, which took the building over from the Department of Defense in 1988, say it has been decontaminated numerous times and cleared for human habitation or demolition.

Plans have been drawn up for the demolition, possibly this year, officials said yesterday. Dismantling cannot begin until money is approved by the National Institutes of Health, which oversees the cancer institute.

"There is no evidence of any viable, living [anthrax] spores in the building," said George W. Anderson, a decontamination expert with the Southern Research Institute who is overseeing plans to dismantle the structure. "At this point, we feel that it's more risky to vaccinate people [against possible anthrax infection] and send them into the building than to not vaccinate them."

Once NIH gives the financial go-ahead, demolition is expected to take about 10 months, officials said. The building will be taken apart section by section, and the gargantuan stainless steel fermenting vats moved and dismantled.

Protective mesh will cover the building to prevent debris from falling and to cut down on dust, officials said. Of greater health concern than latent biological agents, Anderson said, is asbestos on the vast plumbing network inside the building and lead paint on the walls.

Building 470 -- a dark, looming structure loaded with a tangled network of fermenting vats, decontamination pipes and other lab paraphernalia -- has been vacant since shortly after President Richard M. Nixon declared an end to the nation's biological weapons program.

Since then, it has been declared safe to enter several times and sometimes has been used for storage, but never occupied full time. Production of biological agents at the building ended in 1965.

The building's mythology seemed to spread through the 1970s and 1980s, said Norman Covert, a retired Fort Detrick public affairs officer who wrote the installation's official history.

"People have been afraid of it for all these years," Covert said. "Locally and nationally, people euphemistically called the building the Anthrax Tower, the Tower of Doom."

Opened under intense secrecy in 1954, at a time when Cold War fears of Soviet biological weapons were at a peak, Building 470 is one of the few remaining symbols of biological weapons production in the United States.

Dark and ominous -- and one of the tallest buildings in Frederick County -- the tower has garnered an image of dark mystery, an image that was only heightened by the building's continuing vacancy.

There was a massive spill of anthrax slurry in 1958, when a lab worker accidentally damaged a valve on a 2,500-gallon fermenter used to brew anthrax. No one was killed, and the building was thoroughly decontaminated at the time. It continued to function as a laboratory and production facility for 10 more years, without incident, officials said.

Officials said they hope the building's destruction will help eradicate the mythology, still popular in Frederick and beyond, that Building 470 still has undivulged secrets.

Fort Detrick has housed dozens of laboratories for peacetime uses since the weapons program was dismantled, but its reputation as a factory for bioweapons persists -- fed in part by the FBI investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks.

The FBI has several times searched the former apartment of onetime Fort Detrick scientist Steven Hatfill, and just last week, agents returned to a forested area not far from the Army installation to search for clues.

As for Building 470, said Cheryl D. Parrott, program analyst with the National Cancer Institute: "It will be good to put it to bed."