Homeland Security suspending bioterror testing in Oklahoma
A vehicle arrives at the abandoned Chilocco Indian School campus on Nov. 27 in Newkirk, Oklahoma. SUE OGROCKI/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Brian Hobbs, one of the community leaders opposed to using the abandoned Chilocco Indian School campus for bioterror testing, stands outside the campus in Newkirk, Oklahoma. SUE OGROCKI/ASSOCIATED PRESS
NEWKIRK, Okla. (AP) — The Department of Homeland Security said Dec. 21 that it is suspending plans to conduct bioterrorism drills near the Kansas-Oklahoma border over concerns about their impact on grounds Native American tribes consider sacred because more than 100 children are buried there.
Homeland Security spokesman John Verrico said in an email that the tests were suspended over objections to them taking place at the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School. The school, which operated from the late 1800s until 1980, was one of several federally run boarding schools where the U.S. once sought to assimilate Native American children.
The Oklahoma-based Council of Confederated Chilocco Tribes is made up of five tribes that jointly own what’s left of the former Chilocco Indian Agricultural School outside Newkirk where the testing would be conducted. The tribes opposed the government’s plan, saying the agency didn’t inform them about chemicals it plans to release on grounds and that it was failing to protect a site with religious and cultural significance.
“Often when a child died at the school, the family didn’t have the money to bring the body home, so they were buried at the school cemetery,” Heather Payne, a Otoe-Missouria Tribe spokeswoman, said.
Many of the graves are unmarked, Payne said. The site, about 100 miles northwest of Tulsa, near Oklahoma’s border with Kansas, also is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The other tribes that are part of the council are the Kaw Nation, Pawnee Nation, Ponca Tribe and Tonkawa Tribe.
The agency’s environmental assessment for the test said several inert chemical and non-hazardous biological materials were to be released to evaluate the ability of buildings to protect occupants from outdoor biological hazards. The proposed testing was planned for the months of February and June and July.
“While the work remains very important for the security of our nation, further evaluation will be conducted to identify the best location for future testing,” Verrico said.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said he was pleased Homeland Security has suspended plans for testing near the Kansas border.
“While the chemicals DHS planned to use in these tests do not pose any bodily harm, Kansans deserve a thorough explanation when an event of this magnitude is occurring so close to where they live and raise their families,” Moran said.
Homeland Security said the chemicals it planned to use are found in common household products such as sunscreen, cosmetics and laundry detergents.
One chemical that’s caused the most worry, especially among the many farmers who live nearby, is called DiPel, a biological insecticide that's been commercially available since the 1970s and approved for use in organic farming. The Homeland Security project manager has said the chemicals won't pose harm to humans, animals or hundreds of acres of nearby cropland and pasture.
But the tribal group and some residents aren’t convinced.
“We stand united in opposition to the use of Chilocco for testing of potentially dangerous substances,” John Shotton, a spokesman for the tribal council, said. “Many of our tribal members went to school here. Indian children are buried here.”
Newkirk resident Brian Hobbs, a 40-year old construction worker who’s helped organize opposition to the testing, said the five tribes’ opposition could make the difference in whether the government goes through with the tests or abandons its plans.
“It doesn’t matter how many signatures we had, to have them come here and be unified like that, it must be pretty egregious and serious to get all five on the same page,” Hobbs said.
The government announced plans for the bioterror drills in a legal notice in November in Newkirk’s weekly newspaper. Many residents found out about the plans after the editor of the Newkirk Herald Journal decided the notice buried in his 900-circulation paper was front-page news.
About 9,000 people from the farming town and surrounding communities, including Arkansas City, Kansas, just across the Oklahoma border, signed a petition seeking more information from Homeland Security. Dozens showed up at community meetings, demanding answers.
Scientists say the cluster of buildings at the Newkirk site best resemble single-family homes and commercial buildings in any U.S. city.