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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, October 10, 2002

Pentagon details biowar testing here

The Advertiser's initial 1984 report: Secret germ tests were held on Isles
Biological, chemical tests in Hawai'i (graphic)

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Thousands of people on O'ahu were exposed to biological material during Cold War-era government experiments, Defense Department officials said yesterday.

The material was supposed to be harmless, but the government has acknowledged that people with weakened immune systems could have become sick. Military officials also revealed for the first time that deadly chemical agents, including the nerve agents sarin and VX, were tested on the Big Island, but they insisted that no civilians were exposed.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the government should have made the information public much sooner.

"Today's disclosures raise serious concerns about the possible health consequences for veterans and civilians who may have been put at risk by these tests and the subsequent decontamination procedures," he said.

The Advertiser, using documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, first reported in detail that the military conducted open-air biological warfare experiments in Hawai'i during the 1960s using live bacteria. The article, published in 1984, outlined the biological experiments and established that state officials and the public were never given details about the true nature of the tests.

In the spirit of full disclosure to veterans — and under pressure from congressional lawmakers — the Defense Department has sought to release more specific information about one of the most secretive periods in military history.

The Deseret Test Center, in Fort Douglas, Utah, conducted biological and chemical experiments in the United States, including Puerto Rico, and in Canada and the United Kingdom in the 1960s and early 1970s. At the time, the government was concerned about a threat from the Soviet Union and wanted to review its own burgeoning weapons program.

Project 112, as the review was called, involved experiments at sea and on land with about 5,500 military personnel. Military officials released initial information about the tests to the U.S. Senate in 1977 and publicly released additional details in September 2001 and in January and May of this year.

The sea-based testing, called Project SHAD, or Shipboard Hazard and Defense, was intended to identify U.S. warships' vulnerabilities to attacks with chemical or biological warfare agents, and included the use of the USS Granville S. Hall and Army light tugs as "target vessels" for aerial dissemination tests. Some tests were conducted just 60 miles off O'ahu.

The government is attempting to notify veterans involved in the tests. The Department of Veterans Affairs will study whether any veterans have suffered health damage from biological or chemical exposure.

According to the government, more than 50 veterans who served at sea have filed medical claims.

The initial VA notification in May involved 622 veterans identified as participants in Project SHAD. At the time, the VA in Honolulu identified seven service members living in Hawai'i who took part.

Fred Ballard, a VA spokesman, said none of those veterans has come forward. "The VA always has said if any vets felt they were exposed, they should come forward and get a health evaluation, so that still stands," Ballard said.

The government documented a dozen tests in and around Hawai'i between 1963 and 1969 involving biological and chemical warfare materials.

Thousands of civilians were potentially exposed during O'ahu tests involving bacteria designed to imitate a biological agent.

Bacillus globigii is not considered dangerous to healthy people but could cause acute infections of the ear, brain lining, urinary tract, lung, heart valve and bloodstream in those with weakened immune systems.

The government said it is not likely to cause long-term or late-developing health problems.

William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said there is no formal process to notify civilians who may have been exposed. He said that most of the potential civilian exposures occurred on O'ahu and that while state officials may have been notified of the experiments, O'ahu residents were probably not.

"I would presume that they were not aware," he said.

The experiments were designed to evaluate biological and chemical warfare agents tested aboard ships and on land, not on troops or civilians, according to the government.

Military health officials briefed the House Veterans' Affairs Committee yesterday and were scheduled to appear today before the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel.

Akaka called the delay in declassifying the Cold War-era experiments "untenable." "I expect to receive answers to the many questions I have about the dispersal of chemical and biological agents in the Islands," he said.

Besides Hawai'i, the Defense Department released information yesterday on experiments in Alaska, California, Florida, Maryland and Utah; Puerto Rico; the Marshall Islands; Baker Island, an uninhabited U.S.-owned atoll 1,650 miles southwest of Honolulu; and Canada and the United Kingdom.

Background information was released for a handful of experiments in Hawai'i:

• "Big Tom," which The Advertiser first revealed in 1984, involved spraying bacteria on O'ahu and surrounding waters in May and June 1965 to investigate downwind travel and penetration into jungle and tropical terrain.

• "Green Mist" estimated the spread of the nerve agent sarin on rain forest canopy on the Big Island in March and April 1967.

• "Pine Ridge" released bomblets of sarin and ester of benzillic acid, which causes confusion and hallucinations, in jungle canopy in the upper Waiakea Forest Reserve and the 'Ola'a Forest Preserve southwest of Hilo in May and June 1966.

• "Tall Timber" tested the success of bomblets loaded with ester of benzillic acid in the upper Waiakea Forest Reserve between April and June 1966.

• "Half Note" tested three types of bacteria on the USS George Eastman and other military ships about 80 nautical miles south of O'ahu in August and September 1966. Those tests released Bacillus globigii; Escherichia coli, which cause severe stomach cramps and diarrhea,and Serratia marcescens, which causes infections of the heart, blood and urinary and respiratory tracts.

Staff writer William Cole contributed to this report. Reach Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.

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