Reports show Army concern over mask use by civilians at Center for Domestic Preparedness
By EDDIE BURKHALTER | The Anniston Star, Ala. | Published: March 17, 2017
ANNISTON, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — U.S. Army inspection reports from a 2013 visit to a federal training center in Anniston show the military distancing itself from the use by civilian first responders of respirator masks not certified for that use.
Any claims from potential lawsuits over the use of those non-certified masks, the Army notes in one report, should be paid for by the Center for Domestic Preparedness, which operates the Anniston training center.
The Star received two Army inspection reports this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the CDP.
The Army’s concerns in writing to the CDP came four years before the agency replaced the masks with certified respirators in December, following two tips over the summer to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA in December asked the CDP to replace the masks with equipment certified for that work.
Until December the Anniston center used military-issue M40 respirator masks to train firefighters, police officers, nurses and others from agencies around the world. First responders wore the masks while learning to detect and handle deadly chemical warfare agents such as sarin and VX, and biological toxins such as ricin and anthrax.
The Star discovered in November that trainees at the CDP since 2011 were using a deadly version of ricin as opposed to a less-lethal version the CDP had thought was being ordered. On Dec. 16 FEMA announced that all chemical and biological training at the Chemical, Ordnance, Biological, and Radiological unit, known as the COBRA facility, in Anniston, was suspended.
No students or workers at the COBRA facility were injured or showed signs of exposure due to the use of the deadly version of ricin or the non-certified masks, FEMA has noted.
Emails obtained by USA Today show that the CDP had concerns about the ricin shipments 5 years before the problem was discovered. The lab that sold the ricin to the Anniston center had labeled it correctly as the toxic version, but in answering a concern from CDP staff said the ricin was the safer version, those emails show. The CDP continued using the ricin sent in subsequent shipments even though it remained labeled as the toxic version.
A FEMA spokeswoman in a December message to The Star wrote that “our ongoing inquiry indicated there are additional measures CDP could have taken. We are taking additional steps to assess and improve our processes for procuring and validating biological materials in the future, including hiring an independent, third party to test the biological agents we receive.”
Meanwhile, the incinerator at the COBRA facility has been shut down since Dec. 9, 2015, after the agency discovered that workers used the incinerator knowing that its carbon monoxide monitoring system was malfunctioning.
The report sent from the Army Materiel Command to the CDP on July 16, 2013, states that the M40 military masks used at the Anniston center were “to be used by military personnel only.”
The M40 masks aren’t certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the federal agency that oversees testing and certification of such safety equipment.
The Army report states that although OSHA issued a waiver for the use of the M40 masks by military personnel, “that waiver or exemption is limited to use by military personnel and DoD’s civilian employees.”
A CDP attorney in 2008 interpreted existing laws and regulations to allow the use of M40 masks at the Anniston center, the report states, “however, there is no formal documentation from OSHA to support this legal opinion.”
The report also asks that written agreements between the Army and the CDP be updated to include language that “the CDP assumes any resulting risk associated with the use” of the masks, and that “if found meritorious and to the extent that funds are available, pay any claims that may arise from its use of these masks for training” at the COBRA facility.
Kelley Williams, associate director of the CBRN Defense Graduate Certificate Program at Wright State University in Ohio, believes the Army reports note problems, but do not show that students or staff were placed in harm’s way by using the M40 masks. The Star consulted Williams as an expert in safety requirements with chemical and biological agents.
“I believe the core issue is administrative and not negligence towards safety of those training at COBRATF with M40A1 masks and standard filter cartridges,” wrote Kelley Williams, in a message to The Star on Thursday.
Williams, who has served in the U.S. military and trained with live agents while wearing the M40 mask, also wrote that he believes that CDP staff “utilized existing best practices to protect trainees and personnel. Furthermore, I think they attempted to seek proper approval for use of the M40 but that further administrative steps would be appropriate as recommended.”
The CDP in December switched to commercially-available Avon masks, which are NIOSH-certified.
The June 10, 2013, Army report notes that safety procedures at the CDP’s laboratory, where workers prepared the agents used in training, were “found to be outstanding.”
“Although the laboratory staff has changed,” the report states. “It is clear that the laboratory director continues to maintain and encourage high performance standards. The procedures were carried out in a highly professional manner, with all personnel demonstrating proficient and practiced coordination, communication, and attention to detail.”
The Army ships and oversees the use of chemical agents at the CDP, but does not do so for biological agents there, which includes ricin.
©2017 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.)
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