WASHINGTON — Four Democratic members of the state's congressional delegation called Thursday for the Trump administration to reverse its plan to shutter two Maryland facilities that test and analyze biological and chemical threats, arguing their closure would put Americans at a greater risk of attack.
In its proposed budget released in May, the administration recommended closing the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center at Fort Detrick in Frederick County and the Chemical Security Analysis Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County to save $38 million next year.
The $143 million Fort Detrick laboratory, which opened just seven years ago, has been used by the FBI to test substances in high-profile cases, including a letter sent to the White House in 2013 that contained the deadly compound ricin. The Aberdeen Proving Ground office was created in 2006.
The Fort Detrick laboratory employs about 185 people and roughly a dozen people work at the Aberdeen site, officials said.
"These actions are alarming and will put the American people at greater risk of a chemical or biological terrorist attack," the Democratic lawmakers wrote to President Donald Trump in a letter dated July 5 and made public Thursday. "We will vigorously oppose any attempt to close the doors of these facilities."
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment, but in a budget document made public earlier this year, officials wrote that the work conducted at both Aberdeen and Fort Detrick "can be replicated at other facilities."
A May 24 letter from the Department of Homeland Security to Battelle National Biodefense Institute, the contractor that operates the Fort Detrick lab, praised the facility and said it had "led the charge in developing the science critical to the defense of the United States against biological terrorist threats."
But the letter required the company to submit a plan for closing the laboratory by September, citing proposed budget cuts. It is not clear if a similar letter was sent to the agency at Aberdeen.
Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, as well as Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Delaney, also criticized the administration for beginning the process of closing the labs before Congress finishes its work on next year's spending legislation.
Many Republicans have joined Democrats in opposing Trump's budget, and the proposal appears unlikely to advance. That leaves the real battle over the Maryland facilities with the annual appropriations process. An early version of that legislation would strip funding for the two sites, but it could be amended.
Delaney, a Potomac Democrat, introduced an amendment to a defense bill to protect the Fort Detrick site from cuts. The House could vote on Delaney's measure as early as Friday.
The Fort Detrick laboratory in particular appears to enjoy bipartisan support. Former Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, a Republican, noted in a statement that the administration's budget "provides no plan" for other departments to pick up the work if the facility is closed.
The lab handles materials categorized as "biosafety level 4," the highest level of threat reserved for fatal viruses and substances that are susceptible to becoming airborne and for which there are no vaccines. Hemorrhagic fevers, such as the Ebola virus, are handled in the highest-level labs.
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Though security at the facility is intense and the work is largely shrouded in secrecy, The Baltimore Sun was granted a tour in 2013. The building is equipped with submarine-style air locks to control airflow and foot-thick concrete walls. Scientists wear full-body pressure suits and are monitored remotely as they work.
The Chemical Security Analysis Center may be best known for Project Jack Rabbit, a 2010 initiative in which scientists studied the potential impact of chemicals like chlorine and ammonia — often transported by rail — in the event of an accident or attack.
"They do serve a unique function for the protection of the United States," said Tom Albro, president of the Army Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for Aberdeen Proving Ground. "There's no one [else] stepping up to do it."