Did A Military Lab Spill Anthrax Into Public Waterways?

Anthrax-contaminated wastewater from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland was spilled into public waterways in Maryland.

Unsterilized laboratory wastewater from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, spewed out the top of a rusty 50,000-gallon outdoor holding tank, the pressure catapulting it over the short concrete wall that was supposed to contain hazardous spills.

It was May 25, 2018, the Friday morning before Memorial Day weekend, and the tank holding waste from labs working with Ebola, anthrax, and other lethal pathogens had become overpressurized, forcing the liquid out a vent pipe.

An estimated 2,000-3,000 gallons streamed into a grassy area a few feet from an open storm drain that dumps into Carroll Creek — a centerpiece of downtown Frederick, Maryland, a city of about 80,000 an hour’s drive from the nation’s capital.

But as the waste sprayed for as long as three hours, records show, none of the plant’s workers apparently noticed the tank had burst a pipe. This was despite the facility being under scrutiny from federal lab regulators following catastrophic flooding and an escalating series of safety failures that had been playing out for more than a week.

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Before the outdoor tank failed, there had already been breaches of other lab waste storage tanks inside the sterilization plant.

On May 17, 2018, in the wake of devastating storms, workers at Fort Detrick discovered that the plant’s basement was filling with water that would reach 4 to 5 feet deep. Some of it was rainwater seeping in from outdoors. But a lot was fluid leaking from the basement’s long-deteriorating tanks that held thousands of gallons of unsterilized lab wastewater.

As basement sump pumps forced floodwater into these tanks, the influx disgorged lab waste through cracks along the tops of the tanks, sending it streaming back toward the floor.

The steam sterilization plant, referred to as “the SSP,” was built in 1953. It was designed to essentially cook the wastewater that flowed into it from Fort Detrick’s biological laboratories, ensuring that all deadly pathogens were killed before the water was released from the base into the Monocacy River.

The first lab waste storage tanks to fail at Fort Detrick's steam sterilization plant in May 2018 were located inside this brick building, flooding its basement with a mixture of wastewater and rainwater.
The first lab waste storage tanks to fail at Fort Detrick’s steam sterilization plant in May 2018 were located inside this brick building, flooding its basement with a mixture of wastewater and rainwater. (Maryland Department of the Environment)

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