Military bases are not prepared for chemical and biological attacks
Last spring, a van arrived at an inspection station near one of the gates of Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia. Military police noticed what looked like chemicals inside and that passengers were “showing signs of illness”. Soon, first responders arrived, donned protective gear and, according to a military press release, searched “the vehicle for possible CBRNE exposure,” using the acronym Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Explosives. and high yield.
This “CBRNE exposure” was not real — it was part of a training exercise. “My biggest takeaway is that all agencies work well together,” Tim Scott, a lieutenant with the Fort Eustis Fire Department, said at the time, noting that coordination between multiple agencies was key to ensuring an incident. similar in the real world can be handled effectively and efficiently.
But an internal Army audit obtained exclusively by The Intercept indicates that a true CBRNE event could have ended in disaster.
The results of the audit, released just days after the April 2021 exercise at Fort Eustis, were dismal. Investigators inspected five Army bases to determine if they were prepared for a true CBRNE emergency, such as a chemical weapons accident or a “dirty bomb” attack. Either way, they weren’t.
“The military failed to take the necessary steps to ensure first responders at the facility had the equipment and training necessary to respond to a high-level chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive incident. performance (CBRNE) at the five facilities we examined,” according to the document, which was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. According to the audit, such failures likely exist throughout the military, which operates approximately 1,800 bases, depots and other sites around the world, including storage facilities for remaining US chemical weapons and a research institute that works with deadly pathogens like anthrax and plague.
The audit placed the lion’s share of the blame on the emergency management branch of the Department of the Army’s headquarters for failing to provide “sufficient oversight”. The military did not comment on the audit findings before publication. “None of us are familiar with the report or its contents, so we will have to ask around, which may take some time,” spokesman Richard Levine told The Intercept.
Photo: Joint Base Langley-Eustis
The audit, which was conducted from September 2019 to December 2020, found that the military did not provide enough respiratory protection required for all civilian first responders. At two bases, the Army also failed to ensure that all civilian personnel received CBRNE readiness training.
The Army did not release the names of the five facilities in the redacted document, but the audit mentions Kentucky’s Blue Grass Army Depot, where both explosive ordnance and chemical weapons are stored; Fort Bliss in Texas, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island; and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, which has a population of approximately 110,000 active duty soldiers, family members and civilian employees. The audit determined that civilian first responders at the last two bases were also not using National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-approved respirators.
Auditors determined that the five facilities were missing a total of 241 pieces of equipment needed for CBRNE response missions, including hand-held devices designed to detect chemical warfare agents, air-purifying gas masks and hazmat protection boots. Investigators also “could not determine the existence of six other items,” including additional chemical agent detectors and decontamination shelters, valued at more than $142,000.
When the equipment was located by auditors, large quantities – 89% of the 440 pieces with a collective value of around $1.2 million – were not listed in the required documents, leaving the items “susceptible of loss or theft” or the army in danger of “unnecessary” purchases. or duplicate equipment.
Investigators also found that “key personnel confirmed the lack of clear roles and responsibilities to assess equipment requirements and documentation” and “did not receive specific guidance to determine, commission or maintain » the required equipment. “These adverse conditions likely exist throughout the military,” the audit said, “and need to be corrected.”
The audit findings come as the possibility of CBRNE military disasters is on the rise. The Department of Defense recently announced plans to build nuclear microreactors to power remote and austere military bases. An earlier effort by the military to deploy portable nuclear reactors led to an explosion and meltdown that killed three servicemen in Idaho in 1961.
Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
Last year, the Department of Defense warned that chemical and biological weapons “remain important and are growing at an exponentially accelerating rate”. The Army also continues to store its own chemical weapons at the U.S. Army’s Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado, as well as the Army’s Blue Grass Depot. (The last chemical agents in US stockpile must be destroyed, under the Chemical Weapons Convention, by September 30, 2023.)
In 2019, due to safety concerns related to insufficient decontamination methods, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention halted research at the Army’s Infectious Disease Medical Research Institute at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where work focuses on toxins and germs, including so-called select agents such as Ebola virus, smallpox, anthrax, plague and ricin poison. Work resumed there in 2020.
That same year, a “massive” fire and explosion destroyed the $1.2 billion amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard due, among many problems, to a disorganized federal and civilian response and firefighters from the Navy apparently did not have the necessary equipment to fight the fire.