By ERIC LIPTON
Published: March 25, 2005
ASHINGTON, March 24- The effort for quick detection of a biological attack in major cities is faltering because of shortcomings in the Environmental Protection Agency's management of the program, its inspector general said in a report released on Thursday.
Under the program, BioWatch, air monitors have been set up over the last three years in at least 30 metropolitan regions in an effort to detect within 36 hours the release of deadly pathogens like anthrax, smallpox or plague.
More than $200 million has been spent, including the cost of installing the monitors in cities like Boston, Chicago, Houston, New York, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington.
The inspector general, Nikki L. Tinsley, found that in some cases the monitors were installed too high or too close to the ground or next to objects that obstruct air flow. In other cases, the monitors are too far apart to ensure that they could detect an attack or are in places where they could be tampered with or vandalized.
The agency has also not ensured that the monitoring equipment is regularly checked to make sure it is working properly; in some cases, it said, improper maintenance has resulted in incorrectly calibrated equipment.
"The failure of E.P.A. to completely fulfill its responsibilities raises uncertainty about the ability of the BioWatch program to detect a biological attack," the audit says.
Officials at the agency did not dispute most of the findings, saying the flaws reflected the fact that the monitoring was set up in a rush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, as well as the mail-borne anthrax attack in October 2001.
"BioWatch is an evolving program," an assistant administrator, Jeffrey R. Holmstead, wrote in a response. "Now that the network has been successfully established, we agree that it is an opportune time to review the network internally."
As long as a year ago, the Bush administration acknowledged that the 10 or so sensors installed in most cities were probably not enough, concluding that perhaps as many as 60 are needed.
At the time, it announced plans to expand coverage in 10 cities this year, with a second generation of equipment that would allow for much more frequent readings.
Now, samples are collected and tested generally once a day, and testing is increased to twice a day in certain cities at times of heightened alerts, as well as at special events like New Year's celebrations or Super Bowl games.
The program is not intended to prevent an attack. By the time the air samples are collected and processed, the agent would have already infected potentially hundreds of thousands of victims.
Instead, by monitoring the air, federal officials hope to be able to start a mass treatment program more quickly, passing out drugs or vaccines that are being stockpiled in a related federal program.