NEWKIRK, Okla. – The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announcement that the implementation of biosafety drilling in the Oklahoma farming town of Newkirk was hidden under the local weekly newspaper, the classified ads.
In the notification is mentioned on a “low-level outdoor release of an inert chemical and biological simulant materials,” and directed people to a science-heavy website to explain why the agency chose for the community.
The Newkirk Herald Journal thought it should be front-page news, and the subsequent article sent shock waves through the town of about 2300 people, making them wonder, “Why here?” questions the government’s assurances about the safety of the chemicals they plan to use during the tests will have to determine how the government might react to a bioterror event.
“They try to tell us that it is 100 percent safe,” Brian Hobbs, a 40-year-old construction worker who helped rally like-minded residents. “It leaves people with an uncomfortable feeling. I don’t want to be a pilot project for the Department of Homeland Security.”
Approximately 9,000 wary residents of Newkirk and neighboring communities, including Arkansas City, Kansas, just across the border, by signing a petition on the lookout for more details from the federal agency. Many residents want guarantees from the government that none of the chemical substances that have a negative influence on the agricultural land in the area, a stream that empties into the Arkansas River or the vast Kaw Lake watershed. Dozens have shown up at meetings demanding answers.
Newkirk, about 100 miles (161 km) north-west of Tulsa, near Oklahoma’s border with Kansas, is dotted with churches and modest homes with well-manicured gardens. A grain elevator at the local co-op is the tallest downtown building. Some here find their lineage to the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889, when the area was opened up to white settlement.
“A lot of families have grown up here; it is really at home. That is the reason why everyone is scared,” said Newkirk Herald Journal editor Cody Griesel.
The tests are tentatively set for the winter and the summer of 2018, with no specific dates of the government. The test environment is the abandoned Chilocco Indian School campus just outside the city.
Scientists say that the cluster of buildings on the site, which is the closest to single-family dwellings and commercial buildings in an AMERICAN city. The government said that the chemicals be used to measure the amount of material that penetrates structures in the event of a bioterrorist event, and how the government can best the or in the event of an attack.
The chemicals to be used are titanium dioxide, commonly used in sunscreens and cosmetics; fluorescent optical brighteners found in laundry detergents; and urea, a substance found in the urine and fertilizers. The chemical substance that is likely the cause of the most worry among the residents is called DiPel, a biological insecticide that is commercially available since the 1970s and is approved for use in organic agriculture.
Lloyd Hough, the Homeland Security scientist who is monitoring the test, insists the product is widely used and is not harmful to humans or animals. Hough insists there is nothing preserved of the residents, and he noted that the government more time to follow their questions.
“It is not that we are going to show up sometime in the spring and start spraying everywhere,” he said.
Kitty Cardwell, a professor at Oklahoma State University and an expert in agricultural biosecurity that has been involved in other Homeland Security projects, suggested that some residents are concerned because the government’s involvement in the testing.
“When you hear ‘Homeland Security’,’ it sounds scary … as a quasi-military people walking around in hazmat suits — that seems scary; it seems like a bad science fiction movie,” said Cardwell, who added that DiPel is “only bad news if you’re a caterpillar.”
These insurances are not good enough for the 59-year-old Alan Newport.
“The thing that really me off is when they say it is a chemically inert,” said Newport, who works for an agricultural trade publication. “It does not mean that it is safe.”
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