Egregious safety failures at Army lab led to anthrax mistakes

A brigadier general who led an Army biodefense lab in Utah is among a dozen individuals facing potential disciplinary actions — including loss of jobs — for egregious failures that contributed to the facility mistakenly shipping live anthrax to other labs for more than a decade, according to the military’s accountability investigation report that was provided to USA TODAY.

“Over time, you see there is complacency that the leadership should have recognized and taken action to correct,” Maj. Gen. Paul Ostrowski, who led the review team, said in an interview.

The review found that top officials at the Dugway Proving Ground southwest of Salt Lake City had multiple warning signs of scientific and safety problems, yet they failed to take action despite earlier, serious incidents in the facility’s labs during 2007-2011 involving anthrax, VX chemical nerve agent and poisonous Botulinum neurotoxin A.

“This complacent atmosphere resulted in an organization plagued by mistakes and unable to identify systemic issues in the high-risk, zero-defects world of biological select agents and toxins,” the report said.

The new Army report provides troubling details about lax operations at Dugway as staff worked with some of the world’s most deadly pathogens and nerve agents.

Despite being a major testing facility for the Army’s chemical and biological defense programs, Dugway had appointed an unqualified biosafety officer who lacked the education and training to do the job. The facility failed to have a program to routinely test surfaces in its labs to ensure contamination hadn’t been spread outside special biosafety cabinets. And some staff “regularly manipulated data” in important records certifying that pathogens being shipped to other labs were killed and safe for other researchers to use without special protective equipment, the report said.

The review harshly singles out Brig. Gen. William E. King IV, who was in command at Dugway as a colonel from July 2009 to July 2011.

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