While digging under the tent at Area B-11 stopped for most of April when 18 vials of bacteria were unearthed, project planners put the delay to good use, officials said.
Lt. Col. Don Archibald, director of the Safety, Environment and Integrated Planning Office, said the period between April 9, when digging stopped, and next week, when it may resume, is being spent refining processes, such as emergency notification procedures, at the site.
"We want to make sure we have procedures in place so we don't have to stop and start every time we find something," he said. "What we're doing is making sure we've addressed all the areas of concern."
Officials are also assessing potential hazards of new biological material they might encounter, said Clint Kneten, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers.
"We have to have a decision tree in place to react to when a pathogen is found at the site," he said. "We also have to look at what that pathogen means to the site."
Excavation work stopped in January when four vials of bacteria were discovered. To date, 21 vials and one test tube were found at the excavation site. Ten vials contained non-illness-causing bacteria, six had no growth or grew slowly and the remaining six contained illness-causing bacteria. The vials found at Area B are only opened in laboratories with special biological protection and control measures.
Archibald called the illness-causing bacteria opportunistic, "which means you have to have the right conditions for it to cause illness," he said. Two vials contained Klebsiella pneumoniae, two had E. Coli, one had Straphylococcus aureus and one had Yersinia pseudo tuberculosis.
To identify sample contents, the project officials use a bacteria library.
"What the library allows us to do is compare our samples to other known characteristics," Archibald said. "It allows us to identify the correct bacteria so we know what we're looking at."
Bacteria found at Area B-11 will be added to the library so government labs, like the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center, as well as universities and companies can use the library in their research, Archibald said.
Protecting the workers, the public and the environment continues to be the paramount consideration during the excavation process.
"We've taken extraordinary measures and spent a lot of money to protect the public health," Archibald said, adding that project leaders handle samples using techniques adapted from state-of-the-art labs, like USAMRIID.
Workers at the site are under medical surveillance from IT Corp with oversight by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Baltimore District because they work in a hazardous environment. When the 18 vials were discovered, project leaders re-evaluated the surveillance system to monitor employees and ensure they were unaffected.
Of the 22 workers who had nose and throat cultures, one tested positive for Neisseria meningitis. IT Corp and Frederick Memorial Hospital doctors told Archibald that 10 to 20 percent of the population, such as the individual with the positive test, routinely carries this bacteria without exhibiting signs of illness.
Doctors said they are confident that the workers were unaffected because further samples of the soil showed the bacteria was initially misidentified. No harmful bacteria was detected in the soil so it is unlikely the worker contracted it at the site.
The site never had any real down time, Kneten said. Project officials moved the tent's air filtration system's filters inside when they determined the filters will need to be changed more frequently. Tests were conducted May 6 to ensure the new configuration works. Air locks for trucks entering and leaving the tent were also reconfigured.
Soil inside and outside the tent was also sampled during the 30-day break. To date, no results indicate contamination, Archibald said.
"As a precaution, though, we've stepped up the bleaching operations to ensure we kill any harmful bacteria," he said.
The result of the bleaching efforts is really clean dirt.
"There's normally 1,000 naturally occurring bacteria colonies that exist in a dirt sample, and we've got it down to 60," he said. "We've been able to show that we are actually disinfecting the soil."
All soil removed from the site is considered hazardous waste and put in construction debris containers called "roll offs" as they can be rolled off the site. When the April vials were found, the soil in the roll offs tested negative for bacteria and was incinerated at a facility in Texas.
The $14.2 million project has received $8.7 million in Army funding and is 30 percent complete. Detrick, through the U.S. Army Medical Command, has asked the Army's Environmental Center for additional money.
"We had enough funds to get started but we don't have enough to complete it now that we've run into these speed bumps," he said, adding that the main focus now is removing the drums and as much contaminated soil as funds permit.
Archibald said he isn't surprised by the turns the project has taken since the first vials were found January 7.
"When you dig in a landfill, you never know what will come out of it," he said. "You have to plan for every contingency."
Doing nothing, however, was never an option, Archibald said.
"Our goal from the beginning of the remediation was to go in and remove the hazardous chemicals and contaminated soil to prevent them from getting into the environment. That's always been our goal, and that remains our goal," he said.