Feds begin bioterrorism test over central Oklahoma

Monday, March 24th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GOLDSBY, Okla. (AP) _ A crop-duster sprayed polyethylene glycol above a field of cattle and oil pumps Monday in a test to see if weather radar could detect a bioterrorist attack.

It was the first spray of a three-week Army test in the skies over central Oklahoma.

The crop-duster will make 261 runs, dropping grain alcohol, clay dust and a mix of water and polyethylene glycol _ a common ingredient in lotions and mascara.

Blustery winds and minor mechanical problems stalled the start of the testing for a few hours Monday. War in Iraq will cause no delay, Army Col. Chris Parker said.

``If anything, with the war, people are even more aware that this is a critical thing that the nation needs to do,'' he said. ``I think they're even more supportive.''

The Environmental Protection Agency chose the harmless materials because they resemble chemical and biological weapons.

``Literally this is dust _ and we're standing out in an agriculture field,'' said Mark Thomas, the EPA's test coordinator.

The goal of the test is to develop computer technology for a nationwide bioterrorism detection system, said Robert Lyons, with the Army's nuclear, biological and chemical detection program. The federal government hopes to install high-tech software in about 150 radar stations across the country.

The new system would keep track of small planes and tiny puffs of particles that typical radars ignore.

The Oklahoma test, happening here because of the state's advanced weather radar system, will include 27 blind trials _ meaning the crop-duster pilot won't tell radar operators whether he's sprayed anything at all.

It will take weeks to analyze the data and determine how successful the test was, Army officials said.

The federal government has been developing the testing program for three years, with previous tests in Maryland, Utah and Florida. The project started as a way to help troops in the battlefield get an early warning if biological or chemical weapons were in the air.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Army started focusing on a detection system for the public, Lyons said.

The government planned to start the Oklahoma test Feb. 24. But after residents in Goldsby complained at a government meeting, federal officials re-evaluated and struck two of the original materials _ powdered egg whites and a sterilized natural pesticide.

The Army is looking for another spot to test the eggs and BT (bacillus thuringiensis). Those tests likely will happen on a military base, Lyons said.

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. But Oklahomans worried about egg allergies and how the pesticide would affect their crops.

The Army has created a Web site and hot line with daily messages about scheduled test places and times. Army officials promise to respond promptly to messages left on the hot line, 1-866-223-1101.

Only one person _ a woman wondering if the eggs were still part of the test _ has left a message so far, Army spokesman Felix Reyes said. Officials said they headed off most residents' concerns at a public meeting several weeks ago.

Emissions will happen over Goldsby and two other slices of land in south Oklahoma City near the Canadian River.