BG Ft Detrick Aerial

An aerial view of Fort Detrick.

A government agency that performs high-level biodefense work on Frederick's Fort Detrick campus hopes to relaunch production at two types of containment laboratories in the next two to four months after the decades-old steam sterilization plant was permanently closed.

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) halted all operations at Biosafety Levels 3 and 4 containment laboratories on May 31 due to the shutdown of the Fort Detrick Steam Sterilization Plant stemming from the heavy rain and flooding earlier in the month.

Officials initially planned to repair the damage and reopen the more than 65-year-old plant. But on Tuesday at a Containment Lab Community Advisory Committee meeting, USAMRIID commander Col. Gary Wheeler and Col. Scott Halter, commander of the U.S. Army Garrison at Fort Detrick, publicly announced that they are instead shuttering the plant due to its age, the extent of the damage and cost of repairs, prompting the need for a replacement.

“The facility is incredibly old. … And we’ve sort of been trying to keep it up for several years, and trying to revive it, but really it’s not smart to go back to that and make the facility operate at that high standard,” Wheeler explained. “We’re going to develop something else, and that is what USAMRIID is developing right now.”

The plant provided steam sterilization of liquid waste from the high-level USAMRIID research laboratories. The waste was chemically disinfected on-site and routed to the plant, where it was held in storage tanks until it entered the steam sterilization process. The high-level safety measures associated with the work at the labs required employees to take full showers after exiting, which was not possible with the water restrictions put in place because of the plant shutdown. 

Wheeler said Tuesday that other precautions can be taken to eliminate the need for employees to shower after performing work in the Biosafety Level 3 labs, which officials are tackling now and hope to finish within the next two months. He explained that standard practice for most of those laboratories is for employees to wear extra personal protective gear in place of taking showers.

For Biosafety Level 4, officials are planning to develop their own steam sterilization process, which Wheeler said should take about four months to implement. He added that he does not yet have a cost estimate for USAMRIID to establish its own steam sterilization capabilities.

The officials said the plant was set to close two years ago to support a new building, and a replacement steam sterilization plant was set to go online to support it. That plan, however, was put on hold as the process to obtain the new building took longer. Wheeler said Tuesday he does not have a timeline for when it will be completed.

USAMRIID spokeswoman Caree Vander Linden said last month that the plant shutdown affected roughly 300 employees, or one-third of the institute’s workforce, who could not return to the labs while it was out of commission. She and Wheeler said Tuesday that the employees are working in the other labs that do not require steam sterilization.

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Wheeler and Halter summarized what happened at the plant during and after the flooding, actions officials that have taken since the incident, and the effect of the plant’s closing on USAMRIID’s work.

On May 17, two days after a large storm brought an excessive amount of rain to Frederick, plant workers noticed flooding in the basement. On May 25, as they addressed the problems, they discovered leaks in a storage tank due to overcapacity because of the flooding. The next day, the repairs began.

On May 31 and June 1, officials performed environmental sampling for 16 organisms USAMRIID was working on. The organisms included anthrax, melioidosis, Ebola virus, Marburg virus, Lassa fever virus, and others. Wheeler and Halter said Tuesday that all of the results of the tests came back negative.

Halter said USAMRIID was the only contractor using the plant at the time besides the Department of Agriculture, which used the plant for five days after the incident due to flooding at its own steam sterilization plant.

According to a scale the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Select Agents and Toxins developed that ranks the severity of incidents, the risk to the public from the incident at the plant was assessed as negligible. A negligible rating means it was an “insignificant threat to entity personnel or the health of the public or agriculture.”

Wheeler said officials have been working with the sponsors of the work that employees were doing in the Level 3 and 4 labs and have adjusted timelines for the completion of the projects.

Follow Mallory Panuska on Twitter: @MalloryPanuska.

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