CHILOCCO — A recent announcement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has caused an uproar in the communities surrounding the former Chilocco Indian School.
The announcement, made last week, was sent as a legal publication to The Newkirk Herald Journal.
This publication announced the availability of a draft Environmental Assessment for performing a collaborative scientific study.
The publication specifies that the study will include “low-level outdoor release of inert chemical and biological stimulant materials at the Chilocco (former) Indian School Campus.”
It goes on to state that there will be two such releases, one in February 2018 and one later that summer.
While the publication does not specify the materials to be used, it does give reasons for the testing.
“The purpose of this study is to gather data that enhances our predictive capabilities in the event of a biological agent attack,” the DHS announcement states.
“Specifically, this work will help in predicting the extent to which an intentional release of a biological agent may penetrate single-family and multi-family structures.”
The study will measure the amount of material that penetrates the buildings under various conditions.
At the tail end of the publication, there is an address to which comments about the planned study can be sent:
S&T CBD Mail Stop 0201
Murray Lane SW
Washington, DC 20528-0201
Langer tries to allay concerns
The concerns that have been voiced by local residents have been mirrored in reports by various media entities.
Citizens in Arkansas City and Newkirk are rallying against the testing. Ark City resident Jill Wineinger started a petition after seeing the initial report of the testing.
The petition had more than 6,000 signatures as of Nov. 15. In addition, those opposed to the testing gathered Nov. 12 at the gates of Chilocco to protest.
However, one local official is speaking out against any public alarm.
“It truthfully is not nefarious,” said City-Cowley County Health Department Administrator Tom Langer.
“I see people anxious or worrying, (but) I don’t want them to fear. If there was something nefarious, I would be the one standing on the courthouse steps, screaming at the top of my lungs.”
Langer, who also serves as the county’s public health officer, has been urging citizens to take a step back and understand why the test is occurring.
“If we were to define ‘risk,’ if I were to step outside and smoke one cigarette today, I would be at greater risk to harm that this test will prove to be,” Langer said.
“I’d be in greater risk getting in my car and racing to Winfield and back to Ark City today. I went back and looked at the headlines, and I could see that there was lot of salacious language used.”
Langer’s background in public health
Langer has been employed at the city-county health department since August 2015.
Prior to that, he spent 10 years working with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
During six of those years, Langer served as state director of environmental health.
There is all manner of testing and monitoring in Kansas for environmental hazards, according to Langer.
This includes testing similar in design to the planned testing at Chilocco.
“We do a lot of emergency planning based on the data collected,” Langer said.
The testing that has been outlined in the release from DHS will be used to prepare for potential attacks using biological weapons.
“You can’t release the known biological weapon,” he said. “Instead, the government simulates the testing using substances that are harmless.”
Langer called the impending DHS test program a “well-constructed evaluation. I think it is a very well-constructed design.”
“I went to the Department of Homeland Security’s website and read (the documents outlining the testing),” he added.
“I read it through the eyes of someone who has been involved in environmental testing.
“In reality, 1.3 pounds of a material will be used. Imagine a bowl full of baking flour, from 6 to 9 feet in the air, being dispersed (within the Chilocco school grounds).”
“To reach us, there would have to be a 200 mile-an-hour wind,” Langer said of any substance released in Chilocco during the proposed testing.
“This isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t going to put anyone in Cowley County at risk. The results will be very, very helpful to us should something happen in Cowley County (in the future).”
Two of the materials named in the documents are titanium dioxide and urea.
“They are using these materials because they are completely inert materials. Urea is something that is in our bodies anyway,” Langer said of the chemical, which occurs in urine.
He also said the testing use of titanium dioxide is due to its stable nature. “It doesn’t dissolve,” he said. “It can be accounted for.”
The third material is an inactive form of a bacterium that occurs naturally and is essentially harmless. It has been modified to fluoresce so its dispersal can be better tracked.
Chilocco testing parameters
The point of the DHS study is to find out how well protected Americans are in man-made structures during an attack involving biological weapons.
“The Department of Homeland Security found a site that really perfectly fits. They can design this test to mimic the results of an attack on (communities such as ours),” Langer said.
“The test will really be to find out how much a substance, which closely mimics a known biological weapon, affects these structures.”
The structures found at Chilocco closely resemble structures that can be found in small agricultural towns across the nation.
Langer said some of the study could give him information to anticipate how field burning can affect those with asthma.
But at the end of the day, the testing that will take place will better prepare us for an eventuality that may never occur, he said.
“I have a hunch that it will be really kind of cool, but I’m a science nut. I want to go down and watch,” Langer said.
He concluded by saying that he will be filing a request for the test’s findings when all of the testing and review has been completed.