The recent heavy flooding that caused millions of dollars in infrastructure damage and shook up local homes and businesses could also affect the timely completion of biosafety work at containment laboratories at Fort Detrick.
The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) halted all operations at Biosafety Level 3 and 4 laboratories on May 31 due to ongoing repairs at the Fort Detrick Steam Sterilization Plant because of problems stemming from heavy rain and flooding earlier in the month.
Caree Vander Linden, a spokeswoman for USAMRIID, said Thursday that the shutdown affects roughly 300 employees, or one-third of the institute’s workforce, who cannot return to the labs until the repairs are made. She explained that the high-level safety measures associated with the work at the labs requires employees to take full showers after exiting, which is not possible with the water restrictions put in place because of the plant repairs.
While Vander Linden did not comment on the specific work underway at the labs or how the shutdown could affect scientific research, she said a long hiatus could end up having an impact.
“The longer the period of time, the greater the impact it will have on our product timelines and on USAMRIID’s ability to conduct critical research on medical countermeasures for biodefense,” Vander Linden said via email Thursday. “Right now we do not have a timeline for getting back to full operations.”
Vander Linden explained that USAMRIID is basically a customer of the plant, which provides steam sterilization of liquid waste from all of the post’s research laboratories. The waste is chemically disinfected at laboratories and routed to the plant, where it is held in storage tanks until it enters the steam sterilization process.
On May 17, two days after a large storm brought an excessive amount of rain to Frederick, plant workers noticed flooding in the sterilization plant’s basement. On May 25, workers discovered leaks in a storage tank due to overcapacity because of flooding and excessive rain from recent storms. The next day, repairs began.
Lanessa Hill, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Garrison at Fort Detrick, said Thursday that workers have been patching holes and doing other work to fix the leaks. She said she does not know how long it will take to complete.
“We want to make sure folks who are in there working and repairing things are safe and the repairs are done right,” she said.
Officials reported the issues to the Maryland Department of the Environment and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and are working with representatives as they complete the work.
Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said via email Wednesday that the department is “actively investigating the incident.”
“We are in communication with Fort Detrick as we continue to gather information, and we are working in coordination with local officials and the federal [Environmental Protection Agency],” the email said.
Apperson also said department officials are unaware of any impacts to the environment or public health as a result of the issues and that they notified the operators of drinking water facilities downstream, who are operating their water systems to ensure the water is safe to drink.
“Moving forward, we will be focused on evaluating steps that can be taken to minimize the potential for an incident of this nature from happening again,” he added.
Vander Linden also said Thursday that operations in Biosafety Levels 1 and 2, the other two levels of biological containment on-site, are still operating. The lower-level labs, she said, do not have specialized safety precautions in place like Levels 3 and 4.
According to information from USAMRIID’s website, in Level 3, workers are required to change into scrub suits, and possibly put on other protective equipment, before entering the laboratory and take a complete shower before exiting. In Level 4, the highest level of containment, the workers wear positive-pressure suits commonly called “spacesuits” and breathe filtered air as they work.
Vander Linden said the workers displaced in Levels 3 and 4 are performing other tasks until the labs reopen.