The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s plan to spray chemicals and biological agents in simulated terrorist attacks at an abandoned school has alarmed residents and caused a stir on both sides of the Oklahoma-Kansas border.
The agency says the substances are safe and the test is needed to plan the country’s response to a potential terrorist plot, but news of the proposed tests — one planned for early 2018; the other in the summer — is fueling Facebook discussions and petitions, online conspiracy theories and internet watchdogs of the “New World Order.”
“We’re spraying these materials not to create a hazard, but rather to understand what the hazard would be if someone else released a hazardous material,” says Lloyd Hough, the Homeland Security program manager overseeing the tests.
The federal agency has conducted similar bioterrorism tests and drills before in subway systems in Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C. The Oklahoma tests are planned to take place at the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, which closed in the ’80s. The school buildings are located in a remote, rural setting but have updated heating and air-conditioning systems, and can simulate how airborne contaminants infiltrate modern buildings.
“We’re looking to understand what happens in a typical home,” Hough says.
The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry approved a permit for the spraying. Two powdery chemicals will be released during the winter test, the federal agency reported in its environmental assessment, including urea laced with a fluorescent dye commonly found in laundry detergent, and titanium dioxide, a commonly used white pigment.
When the public hears chemical names like titanium dioxide, “it sounds scary,” says Kitty Cardwell, an OSU professor and director of the National Institute for Microbial Forensics and Food and Agricultural Biosecurity. “It’s a chemical name, but if you look on the ingredients list in your toothpaste, in ranch dressing,” you’ll see it.
For the summer test, the security agency wants to release a pound of Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria and pesticide used in “caterpillar killer” dust found on the shelves of big-box stores.
“It’s not more than you would be exposed to if you lived next to an agricultural setting,” says Cardwell, who’s not involved in the proposed tests, but has worked on similar ones.
The Chilocco school, located near Newkirk in northern Kay County, is owned by the Council of Confederated Chiloco Tribes and leased to OSU’s Multispectral Laboratory, which conducts experiments on contract for law enforcement and government security agencies.
In a statement, council speaker and Otoe-Missouria Chairman John Shotton said, “The tribes would like to know more about the environmental and human impact of the proposed testing.” Shotton said the council also requested meetings between the federal agency and each of the member tribes, including the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, Ponca Tribe, Tonkawa Tribe and the Pawnee and Kaw nations.
Hough, with Homeland Security, says the Oklahoma tests are key to planning a public response to a chemical or biological attack. The testing would also be helpful in the event chemicals or biological agents are accidentally released, say from a plant explosion or a train derailment.
“Should the Department of Homeland Security give emergency managers and first responders instruction that they should stay in their home and shelter in place,” he says, “or should they leave the home and head in a different direction?”
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