Public Safety & Homeland Security

Congressional Panel Demands Answers on Ricin at Anniston's Center for Domestic Preparedness

Students and workers at the lab were testing a more toxic version of ricin than they had thought.

by Eddie Burkhalter, The Anniston Star, Ala. / January 5, 2017

(TNS) - A congressional committee that oversees FEMA in December wrote the agency’s director demanding answers about the mistaken use of a deadly toxin at the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston.

In that Dec. 23 letter, a copy of which was forwarded to The Star on Tuesday, bipartisan committee leaders ask FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to respond to several questions about the agency’s handling and knowledge of the problem that resulted in almost 9,600 civilian firefighters, nurses and emergency medical personnel being exposed to the deadly toxin.

The Star first reported the mix-up with ricin in November.

The House committee’s letter is signed by Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and ranking Democrat Bennie Thompson, of Mississippi, as well as Dan Donovan, R-N.Y., and Democrat Donald Payne Jr. of New Jersey, chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications. Thompson spearheaded the letter to FEMA, according to his communications director.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, also is a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. Attempts to reach him and Rep. McCaul on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

The CDP in November discovered that students and workers at the Chemical, Ordnance, Biological, and Radiological unit, known as the COBRA facility, in Anniston since 2011 had been using the toxic version of ricin as opposed to the less lethal version the CDP had thought was being ordered. The CDP declined to name the lab that supplied the toxin, but blamed that lab for the mixup.

USA Today later reported that Florida-based Toxin Technology sold the ricin to the CDP. The lab’s manager told The Star in December that the lab has never sold the less toxic version of ricin and always correctly labeled the toxic ricin it shipped to its customers.

Homeland Security Committee members were notified of the ricin incident by FEMA on Dec. 13, according to the letter to Fugate. Two days later and “hours prior to the publication of a USA Today story” on the matter, the letter continues, FEMA held a conference call to discuss the problem.

“It is worth noting that all of this took place, inexplicably, nearly a month after the The Anniston Star first reported that ricin holotoxin had been used in CDP’s training program,” the letter reads.

The letter continues that committee members were concerned FEMA did not discuss the matter with the congressional oversight committee for nearly a month after the problem was discovered, and that the toxic ricin was used seemingly unnoticed for years at the Anniston center.

Among the questions posed to FEMA in the letter are how and when FEMA learned of the problem, questions on the CDP’s procurement of the toxin, how the agency will prevent such mistakes in the future and what role the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plays in training and oversight of the CDP.

The committee also wants to know the process FEMA took to contact first responders who trained unknowingly with the deadly toxin.

There are also questions about the personal protective equipment used at the COBRA facility, what students and workers there wore and whether that equipment was appropriate to use with the deadly ricin.

The Star reported on Friday that the Army in a 2013 report to FEMA notified the agency that respirator masks used at the COBRA facility were not certified for that use, as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“I am deeply disturbed by the inappropriate use of toxic ricin powder at the Center For Domestic Preparedness,” Thompson, the committee’s ranking Democrat, wrote in a message to The Star on Tuesday. “Although it remains unclear how this happened, the fact that this went unnoticed for 5 years raises serious questions about FEMA's procurement procedures and their oversight.”

Thompson went on to write that “the fact that FEMA failed to timely notify Congress is equally as troublesome. Reports that respirator masks not certified by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were used at CDP only makes our need for answers from FEMA more urgent.”

Thompson wrote that he is committed to addressing the problems to keep those who train and work at the Anniston center safe.

The Dec. 23 letter asks Fugate to respond to the Committee’s questions by Jan. 19.

Adam Comis, Democratic communications director for the House Committee on Homeland Security, said by phone Tuesday that to his knowledge FEMA has not responded to the letter.

A FEMA spokeswoman, asked about the committee's letter to the agency sent a prepared statement on Wednesday, which said that a "response to the Committee's letter is being prepared and we have continued to engage with Committee staff to respond to any inquiries they have in the interim. "

House committee letter to FEMA director about ricin by The Anniston Star on Scribd

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.


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