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Bioterrorism test in rural Oklahoma

Updated:
GOLDSBY, Okla. (AP) _ A crop-duster will buzz parts of rural Oklahoma in the coming weeks, dropping powdered clay and grain alcohol in a test the government hopes will help prepare the nation for a bioterrorist attack.

The test is risk-free and may one day save lives, the government says. That doesn't mean people living in the test areas have to like it _ or that they don't have a few jitters.

``I'd just as soon they didn't do it here,'' said truck driver Bill Andrews, finishing lunch at a cafe here, 30 miles south of Oklahoma City. ``But they had to have a bunch of fools somewhere.''

Federal officials sent letters to about 600 residents living in the three testing areas around Oklahoma City, telling them not to worry if they see a crop-duster emitting dust puffs over their land.

That's all it took _ phones at Goldsby town hall started to buzz. Others found out about the tests from the nightly news, which caused a bit of panic, said town clerk Kristi Kilcrease.

``If it would have been handled differently, people wouldn't be so scared,'' she said.

The original test materials also included powdered chicken egg whites and a sterilized natural pesticide called Bt (bacillus thuringiensis). But so many residents were worried about food allergies and crops that the Army delayed the test, then removed those materials entirely.

``We're not here to stir up unwanted fear and anxiety in the community,'' said Army Maj. Rudy Burwell in Washington, D.C. ``This is a zero-risk test.''

Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Cynthia Fanning said it's understandable a crop-duster dropping powder from the sky may be frightening, given post-Sept. 11 fears of terrorists using planes. But Fanning said the test is no big deal.

``It's going to be the equivalent to about the amount of dust that would be kicked up by a car going down a gravel road,'' she said. ``It probably won't be visible, and we don't expect it to be detectible at ground level.''

The powdered clay, grain alcohol, which is found in beer, and polyethylene glycol _ often used in lotions _ are expected to dissipate before reaching the ground, Fanning said.

The materials, all biodegradable and harmless, resemble biological or chemical weapons as far as particle size, weight and density, Army officials said.

A new start date for the experiment, originally planned for this week, isn't scheduled. The test likely will stretch into May, with releases happening almost daily during two-week periods.

It is the latest and most advanced in a series of tests the EPA has held in Maryland, Utah and Florida beginning in early 2001, before the terrorist attacks. The Army and EPA dumped powdered egg whites and a bacterium similar to Bt over the ocean near Key West, Fla., last April with no ill effects.

``There's a whole umbrella of concern about bio-chem that's resonating across the country,'' Burwell said. ``We watch the news and the world climate and see there are potentially really nasty things out there. We want to do what we can to protect the homeland.''

The test, happening in Oklahoma because of the state's advanced weather radar system, will help EPA and Army scientists determine how well radar can pick out chemicals or germs in the air. Radar systems will collect data as the materials spray out of the plane, and scientists will analyze it, looking for some way it could help warn the public if there was an attack.

Central Oklahoma is home to major radar centers of the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Weather Service. Scientists don't expect to develop a complete early-warning system from the test, and further tests in other parts of the country are likely.

Despite all the test preparation and assurances, there are still some skeptics.

Waitress Carolyn Kennedy at Libby's Cafe in Goldsby said there isn't anything to worry about as long as the Army is telling the truth.

``But it's the government and I don't trust the government,'' she said, then added jokingly: ``They'll knock us out with one spray.''

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