WASHINGTON – Cities are not getting all the protections President Bush ordered last year to detect a biological terrorism attack, the Environmental Protection Agency's internal watchdog said Thursday.
The report from EPA Inspector General Nikki L. Tinsley's office said the agency hasn't ensured the reliability, timeliness and efficiency of air sampling that Bush directed be part of a $129 million early warning system.
The Homeland Security Department, which pays for and oversees "BioWatch," (search) relies on the help and expertise of EPA and other agencies to run it.
"The failure of EPA to completely fulfill its responsibilities raises uncertainty about the ability of the BioWatch program to detect a biological attack," Tinsley's report said.
Specifically, the report said EPA sometimes placed sensors too far apart, failed to make sure they were all in secure locations and didn't always factor in topography and seasonal wind pattern changes in some cities.
Bush signed an order last April directing agencies to help protect the country from an attack with biological agents. A classified version had 59 instructions for agencies to improve the nation's defenses, including improving the Biowatch system of sensors that continuously monitor and analyze the air in 31 cities.
In response to the report, Jeffrey Holmstead, EPA's assistant administrator in charge of air quality, wrote that the agency was already trying to improve the program along the lines of the inspector general's recommendations.
Holmstead attached the agency's point-by-point reply, which suggested it was natural for the "first of its kind" BioWatch program to need improvement since the monitors were set up "on an extremely tight schedule because of rising security concerns."
Using up to 50 sensors per city, the network is designed to provide coverage for 80 percent of the population in the cities in which it is used, including Washington, New York, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, San Diego and Boston. The intent is to detect a biological agent within 36 hours of release and give authorities time to react properly.
The system was created in 2003 because of concern that terrorists might aerosolize a biological agent and spread deadly biological pathogens, including anthrax (search), smallpox (search) and plague (search), that could kill thousands of people and also harm animals and plants.
EPA uses aerosol monitors that draw in air and pass it through disposable filters, which are collected once a day throughout the year. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is in charge of the lab analysis of the filters.
The program is among the Bush administration's most aggressive anti-terrorism efforts. It is a companion to the programs "BioSense," which tracks disease outbreaks; "BioShield," (search) which provides vaccines, and the "National Biosurveillance Integration System," which coordinates information from the federal government, states, communities and industry.
EPA also was criticized for not doing more to help cities develop plans for dealing quickly with the consequences of a bioterrorism attack.
That lack of planning was highlighted in October 2003 when two BioWatch sensors in Houston on three consecutive days detected fragments of tularemia, a bacteria common among rabbits, prairie dogs and rodents that sometimes spreads to humans.
It turned out to be naturally occurring, not a terrorist attack, and no one became ill. But the incident marked the first time the network detected such a serious airborne threat. The U.S. military stockpiled tularemia as a bioweapon in the 1960s.