Episode 1: DTRA Cleans Up Vozrozhdeniya Island's 12 Tons of Anthrax
This episode will cover the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program's Biological Threat Reduction Program's heavy involvement in Vozrezhdeniye Island, Uzbekistan, commonly referred to as Voz Island, where the CTR Program eliminated more than 12tons of weaponized anthrax that was abandoned on site. These are the personal stories and experiences of DTRA people who were on the ground as part of the clean-up crew.
DTRA Public Affairs Specialist
Defense Threat Reduction Agency
Defense Threat Reduction Agency
Defense Threat Reduction Agency
||Polymerase Chain Reaction
||Meals Ready to Eat (Army food)
||Biological Weapons Convention
Podcast Host (00:06):
Welcome, everybody, to a new series of podcasts that we are calling Stories from DTRA [00:00:11], where we dive a little deeper into the mission space of WMD, or Weapons of Mass Destruction. This is our premiere podcast, and it will take us back in time, nearly 20 years ago, to the Voz Island, formally located in the RLC. The former island's territory is now split between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
What does DTRA have to do with Voz Island? Well, the Cooperative Threat Reduction Directorate has the Biological Threat Reduction Program, or BTRP, as you might hear it called, which conducted a cleanup mission at the island that eliminated more than 12 tons of weaponized anthrax left behind by the Soviet Union's Biological Weapons Program during the Cold War. It was quite a mission, and one to be proud of, for the sake of the health and safety of the people around the world.
And today, I'm joined by two guests who were on the ground, facilitating the elimination and cleanup of the dangerous materials. With me today is Doug Gorsline, who still works with the BTRP at DTRA, but at the time, he served as a military linguist, assisting with the Russian translations were necessary. Also here today is Eric Casper, who is a presidential management fellow for BTRP working as a Deputy Project Manager on chemical and biological weapons.
Gentlemen, thanks for being here today to discuss this unique and important mission. I want to start with this simple and obvious question. How did you know the Russian left behind dangerous materials that were considered to be WMD?
The information that we had, again, was that the 1979 Sverdlovsk accidental release... The Russians were afraid that they were going to get caught with their pants down with regards to the PWC, so they shipped everything down to Voz Island, which was, at that point in time, their biological weapons testing range. Akin to Dugway for us. So, they moved the material down there and buried it for long term disposal. And since that was the Soviet Army's biological weapons testing facility, it really couldn't have been anybody else.
They had the satellite image room, basically, that said, "We see these, where there's been material placed in the ground here. Go; use these grid coordinates, and go sample it, and see if you think there's something there."
Podcast Host (02:15):
Were you guys there together?
There were two trips, just so it's clear. There was this front-end reconnaissance, where we, "Is it still on the ground? Can we find it? How dangerous is it?" Especially dangerous.
Podcast Host (02:26):
At the time.
And then made a follow-up plan, so, then, these guys were more operational. I was the civilian guy. So we helped award a contract to a vendor to go out there with us, to do a lot of the work.
Podcast Host (02:42):
So, who was at DTRA.
Podcast Host (02:44):
So who was there first? Or were you guys there-
We were the same time.
Same time. [crosstalk 00:02:46].
Podcast Host (02:46):
At the same exact time?
We're the same time [crosstalk 00:02:47] reconnaissance mission and the execution group, we were there together.
Podcast Host (02:49):
Okay. So when you first got word that you were going to go down there, you were going to go explore, assess, maybe destroy, what'd you think?
Unlike Doug, who'd been in that world, that was amazing, right?
Podcast Host (02:59):
Amazing or scary?
Nah, it was amazing. Because we were talking about... You're in your 20s. You think this stuff is kind of thrilling. You're going to go tackle this big problem, at the time. It was... Yeah. It was fascinating.
I mean, we were in our late 20s, early 30s, and indestructible, it seemed. You do think about the risk, but you're also just enthused by the adventure of it.
Podcast Host (03:17):
Yeah. It was incomprehensibly exciting.
Right. And, I mean, even then, you know the uniqueness of it. You're going to be the only person that does this, the only group of people that handle a problem of this sort. And so, that's pretty interesting. I assumed that there were enough smart people around us that they would make sure we did everything safely.
Podcast Host (03:37):
But I think that a lot of that was really born of the coordination meetings that we had beforehand, both the intel briefs, as well as the coordination with you, and the team lead, and the rest of the SMEs, the subject matter experts, who went out with us. I think there was a high degree of confidence that this was not going to be some crazy junket to our own demise. This was really a team of extremely competent, driven, professional people, who were going to take care of each other throughout.
We were starting to spin up work down in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, all those areas, at the time. So, that was also... I mean, this was... in retrospect, we knew there was dangerous stuff around, and so that was a push to go into that area. Just to...
Well, we don't want a third party to get access to this. Not so much the Russians. It was like, this is there. Now there's a peninsula that you could just simply walk or drive across to get to...
Podcast Host (04:32):
Proliferation [crosstalk 00:04:33].
Yeah. That was really the driver of, "What happens if an asymmetric group from just south of the border with Pakistan simply drove up there?" You know, the 10 hours it would take. Walk across the land border, find the stuff, dig it up, take it back, and then do what they're going to do.
Podcast Host (04:48):
Why didn't that happen? How did the US get there quicker?
There were scavengers out there, and that was part of it. It was just...
Podcast Host (04:52):
Get there before they do?
Someone could walk across to an area, and then end up with it on their shoes. And you don't know if it's an accidental endemic, something that's just there, or if this is truly weaponized bad stuff. The other part of that is, we had some of the smartest experts in the world on our team, too. I mean, we had guys that... We had the person who'd run Plum Island for us as part of our advisory team, helping us. So, they weren't looking at me for the answers. They were looking at those guys to make sure we were doing things the right way.
Podcast Host (05:27):
When you got on the plane, you flew out, you kind of had your apprehension, your excitement, whatever; and then you get on ground, and you start operating, you start seeing the environment. Was that the same, expectation vs. reality? Or how would you compare/contrast?
I think when we first put boots on the ground, for me at least, it was surreal. I mean, it's very difficult to articulate or to understand, for somebody who wasn't there. Just a completely desolate ghost town, in every sense of the word, but not on a Hollywood set. And it just kept on going. The sea had retreated, I don't know, two miles or so.
By that time. So you'd literally walk past just hulking ships, sitting in the middle of a desert, with not a drop of water anywhere to be seen. Like, "What kind of video game nonsense is this?" First night, one of our team members, as we were setting up our camps, as the sun started to set, we had started digging fire pits. And one of our team members unearthed a rather large sandpiper in the hole he was digging. And he screamed, went into the air about four or five feet. It was a good jump. And, at that point, we were kind of like, "Christ!" You know? "It's not just the weapons; it's the animals! And it's the pesticides, and everything else. Everything else that is out here is just not friendly to us." There were feral dogs who hadn't seen humans in at least two generations... Yeah! It was one of those places where you didn't go anywhere without a friend. Nowhere.
Right. Yeah. And I remember being told to buy these snake boots, and I'm just like, "I'm sure they're teasing me, because I'm a civilian, right?" These boots that come up to your knees. And I think, the first day, I even wore regular hiking boots. But by the end of that, I was like, "Oh, maybe these are a wise investment," right? "Maybe we really will have a problem by the end of this trip," or something. And, yeah. It was one of those kind of adventures, where you're like, "This is surreal." I mean, to me, still, it seems very Soviet, just to be like, "We're done with these ships. We're just going to leave them here."
Podcast Host (07:33):
Yeah. "Not our problem anymore! Someone will come clean it up." So there were two trips. How long was each trip? Were they about the same?
I don't know. It was about a week, 10 days? For the first recon mission. And then we were out there for two-and-a-half, three months, for the elimination mission.
I don't know if anybody left, but then...
Some people... Well, you're military. And some people, I think, stayed at the very end, the contractors and things, to close out stuff. And there was a lot of testing that had to be done, every day, to make sure we had done what we were supposed to; people were safe. So, had to be. Your safety guys had to be there the whole trip.
Oh, yeah. Every day, at the end of the day, we got swabbed and they'd run a PCR test overnight, and every morning was, "Okay, you're still good. Keep working."
Podcast Host (08:13):
Were you ever worried about that? Or were you just like, "Eh. I'm doing my job. It happens."
I was worried about it? I mean, yes. It it's an absolute possibility when you're doing this job. But, you know, it was going to get done. And if I got sick, I had the absolute confidence in the entire team around me to do what needed to be done to take care of me.
Podcast Host (08:30):
Did anybody get sick?
Well, yeah, you got...
Just, sick... Based on foodborne illnesses, right?
Podcast Host (08:34):
And I was worried! I mean, I thought they were going to have to have to med evac me out.
Podcast Host (08:39):
Like, "I'm dying."
Yeah. I was like...
That was bad. [crosstalk 00:08:45].
"Not the place to be." And...
How you get sick off MREs?
I don't know. I have... it was constitution, I guess. I hadn't been trained by the US government in the ways you had. But, yeah. The other part of it is when I went through this special immunization program up in... At [UC Amrut 00:09:03], right? And that was also another piece of this that was...
Especially for me. I mean, I trusted in that, "This is something that lots of people go through," but that part was intimidating. The six anthrax shots, and how your body's going to react to that long-term and all that, just so we could be out there for two-and-a-half months. That was real. Yeah. And getting the chest X-ray before I went out, so they could say, when I came back, whether something had happened? That made it feel real, too.
Yeah. I forgot about you getting sick out there. I don't know what that was, but that was a nasty cold. And you were laid up for a couple days.
Podcast Host (09:39):
So you mentioned the environment, the animals, the somewhat-dangerous pathogens. What kind of conditions? What did you sleep in and eat in? Was it just MREs? Were you sleeping on the ground? Was there hotels?
So, we all brought tents with us. I guess not ironically, as I recall, the higher-ranking had the bigger tents, and the lower-ranking had the smaller tents.
Not a too-bad tent.
And then it was constant sleeping bags inside of there. And I do remember, the first night, one of the senior military folks copying, like, "Don't forget to check your bag."
Podcast Host (10:12):
"What?" "Check your bag." Oh, man, I didn't think about that! "And in the morning, check your shoes." "Oh." So, yeah, it was, it was tense, and sleeping bags the whole way through. For us, as well as, as I recall, the entire contractor team. We had a decent-size Uzbek labor force that came out to work this, too. And they housed in a GP50 tent, as I recall. Just a general...
That sounds right.
General-purpose kind of big tent from the military. But, yeah. There was no housing whatsoever. No plumbing. No nothing. We had to build an outhouse. We had a 50-gallon drum underneath it. We had to burn it with diesel every other day. It was... It was roughing it.
Podcast Host (10:56):
Podcast Host (10:57):
"What?" No, actually, we did eventually, because the way we actually eliminated the material called for a large amount of water. So eventually we did, as I remember, build kind of a... I don't know, a lean-to shower with a water bladder, but it was... Not every day. And it wasn't warm.
Podcast Host (11:17):
About how many people total were on both these missions? Was it the same people? Was it hundreds? Or was it just a couple dozen?
Well, the first trip was rather small. I mean 10, 15?
Yeah, maybe 10.
Yeah. And then, on the following one, that's where we were interacting with contractors and locals. And so I would say a hundred?
Mm-hmm (affirmative). It was probably five to seven DTRA personnel contractors, probably numbered 15 or so, and then a 50-to-75-person labor force?
Something like that.
Podcast Host (11:51):
What did the locals... How'd they react when you came in and saved the day? Or were they just like,
Yeah. I think it was more the latter. I don't think they knew the slices.
I think it was just work to them.
Podcast Host (12:01):
Did they recognize the danger that was around them?
Well, I mean, we had two levels. You have kind of the scientists we engage with, who are well aware.
Podcast Host (12:08):
And then you had your local workforce, who I think is mostly interested in having the job. So...
Podcast Host (12:15):
I think you had two tiers there. And it was one of these issues that evolved over time, where it'd come back up at times, and Kazakhstan once, "Hey, why don't you come back out and look again, and see if there's anything that's moved off the island, or if there's any rodents that has picked up..." whatever. So it was important to the scientist level of engagement.
Yeah. I've read articles about the locals being a little spooked by the island and what it represented and what it used to be. But I didn't see that in the personnel who were working out there. And that's not to say that it doesn't exist; I just think that when you're talking such an economically disadvantaged community, when the idea of a solid paycheck for three months comes around...
Podcast Host (13:04):
You take it.
"Okay. I'm in."
Podcast Host (13:05):
Was there any surprises when you did the first trip vs. the second? Was there more than you thought?
Well, for me, we got to see the facilities, the infrastructure, around it. I mean, we target this... You know, these are these dirt pits that we're talking about. But there's this four-story building where research and work was done, and you'd walk through it, and it was...
Podcast Host (13:26):
Yes, and creepy, and all those things, when you see it. And things were... A lot of it was still there. Some of it might be in broken condition, but just boxes and boxes of gas masks, or test vials, or cages and things. And so that made it, to me, both more interesting and more scary, right? Because it wasn't just, "Oh, we just dumped this in the dirt here and we left." I mean, it was an ongoing, big project, and you got that sense once you had gone through the property.
Yeah. And I'll just elaborate on one of those points: the cages. I don't know. They were too small for a horse, but too big for a chimp. But just about the right size for a human. If that was the intended purpose? We don't know. We don't. We weren't there at the time. But it was kind of terrifying to contemplate what you were looking at. And I think that Eric is absolutely right. Looking at the pictures, sitting here in Virginia, was... interesting. When the sun rose, and we actually took a look at what was all around this place, it was a whole different ball game of understanding what you were standing in the middle of. And I think, if I remember right, and I may be wrong on this... I don't think we really explored the area too much on that first trip. I think that was really something we dug into on the second trip.
Yeah. The test range was, I mean, interesting. We saw skeletal remains of animals in there. So it was clear that you're launching some kind of bomblet, or something, for an offensive purpose. So you could look at it, see the results, see where it spread, and those kind of remnants were left behind.
Podcast Host (15:08):
Did you guys have to clean up that stuff too? Or was it just the...
No, we were commissioned just for the pits. The biological material was all we were commissioned to engage upon. We came across, like Eric said, the spent munitions. I think there was a couple of 500-pounders. I think there were 500-pounder shells that we found out there.
Podcast Host (15:27):
So, with that in mind, as you were walking through, and the first time seeing these kind of things, did that change, or, I don't know, amplify your kind of... opinion, I guess, of the Russians?
Oh, it was... You got a sense of... The intent. Right? I mean, you don't put this much energy into something without having plans to mobilize this under some condition, right?
Podcast Host (15:53):
To use this at some point.
And so... That's real. When you start to combine it with these other infrastructure things, in Stepnogorsk, and other places we've worked, then you can really see the grand scale of what was going on there, and how far removed... You know, how much longer this project had gone on than others in the rest of the world, after the conventions and stuff, and treaties.
Yeah. I think my perception, having seen what we saw out there, was probably two-tiered. You know, I speak Russian. I studied Russian. And I'm fairly familiar with Russian history and culture. And as I've always understood it, the folks who were doing the actual work at these facilities, at Stepnogorsk, at Voz Island, at Sverdlovsk, etc, etc, they truly believed that they were defending the Russian Homeland, because they truly believed that America was doing the same research on the same materials at the same time, and if they didn't do it, there was going to be a disparity.
So for, for, for that tier, I'm kind of like... My head just hangs, like, "Damn. You guys got screwed." But for the higher echelons of the intelligence community, really, I believe, I presume, should have known that we weren't doing this, but they were just feeding a lie to their communities to make this project... this massive, massive, project... move. Those people, I've got a little animus for.
Podcast Host (17:20):
Fair enough. So can you talk a little bit about the actual cleanup, then? Because I have no visual of how you guys possibly clean some of this stuff up. You mentioned pits. Like, what'd you do?
Well, the original plan was that the... Was it the 50-gallon drums, was the original plan?
I think so.
Yeah. All right. The original plan: there was a number, a large number, of 50-gallon drums out there that we had planned on cutting apart and putting the HEPA chloride into. HEPA chloride is used to neutralize almost any biological material. So, put the earth in there, put the HEPA chloride in there, mix it together, and everything kind of neutralizes. But what was the problem with that? There, we couldn't...
I don't know that I have an answer. I was also back here. So you saw... I was going to say, you see a lot of American ingenuity here. Because it was often, "We tried this; it didn't work. We tried this."
And it's fair, because it's not like we were building on, "This is the process to get rid of buried anthrax on a remote island." We were...
And it's not like we had a Caterpillar store down the road to buy equipment from-
And get it there. So, we had brought a bunch of Soviet-Era... three of them, I think... backhoes, onto the island, to help us with the job. And I can't remember why the clamshelling didn't work on a large scale, but it didn't. So plan B was to dig large trenches into the earth, next to basically each and every one of these pits. Line it with a plastic polyethylene, something like that: plastic sheets, large plastic sheets. Fill it with water, which was why we had a huge water bladder moved out to the island. Water and HEPA chloride as a slurry. And then we'd just move the earth from the casket, from the grave of anthrax, into that pool of HEPA chloride water, let it sit for 24 hours. Our science team would test it. Was it 24 hours, or longer?
I want to say 24. Yeah.
Yeah. At least a day. But then test it, take three or four tests out of it, to ensure that there's no biological agent remaining in there. And then put it back where we found it.
Podcast Host (19:23):
So how did you verify that you cleaned all of it up?
We were just... We, at the beginning, we had done core sampling, around, to kind of identify where we thought it was, and where it was. And that's where we brought a team out that could do sampling. And then some of that was also sent back, eventually, I think. But they could... You can take a grid, and you can say, "Okay, this is where everything should be." Then you can go and maybe work outside of that by a certain percentage, and feel fairly confident that you had it all.
Yeah. And, and we had brought a ConEx laboratory out there, where they actually did their own testing: the testing of ourselves, as well as the samples out of the slurry pits, to ensure that there was nothing left before we put it back.
Podcast Host (20:09):
Okay. Was this somewhat of a unique mission for the US? Was it a first?
Probably the first for...
I don't know of anybody else.
I don't think that anyone else had done anything like this. I mean, the Brits had to clean up their island, which was some of... We took that into consideration. But, again, it was different. This was a very virulent strain, that we had believed to be weaponized, that we wanted to get out of the ground, and make sure that no one else could. And that's why I was saying, when plan A didn't work, we went to plan B, and then you went to plan C, until, eventually... I mean, we were going to be there until the problem was solved, basically.
Yeah. I don't know of any other undertaking like this one. Eric brought up off the island off the United Kingdom, but that is fundamentally different, I think, just in proximity of those two challenges. You know, something that's sitting off the border of England in the sea is certainly a risk that you want to address as quickly as possible. Something sitting a 10-hour drive away from a war zone with Islamic fundamentalists, you know, banging around there? That's a whole different level of, "Let's get this done, and let's get this done right now."
And some of that concern, even though we felt we were the ones who knew it, was that brain-drain. Is that, "What if a scientist who had been involved in the project decided to sell that information for $10,000 or $50,000 to the highest bidder? Well, then it would become a pretty urgent mission to get to there, and make sure that no one else could get it. So that was part of the driver.
Podcast Host (21:46):
It seems like you guys got it cleaned up pretty quickly. Don't you think? A couple months? That seems quick.
All thinking equal, I thought it was pretty fast.
Podcast Host (21:54):
So, overall, pretty successful mission. Looking back, was there anything you would've done differently? Or would've suggested done differently? Other than, like, "not get sick" and "watch out for snakes". But, just operationally or anything, anything that you would've done different?
Honestly, given the limitations of what was available out there to us, and the exigency of the requirement? I think we did a damn good job. Honestly. Nobody died. The job got done. All right? That's a solid win.
Yeah. I'm proud of it.
Podcast Host (22:30):
Was there ever any reporters that showed up, or media that showed interest, that you guys were able to engage with? Or did they just probably talk to locals or something?
We had, in our staging area, when we were in [Dokuz 00:22:41]-
Oh, that's right!
I remember that a lot of the locals wanted to come meet us. And we weren't thrilled with that, as we were heading out?
Podcast Host (22:46):
You were famous?
We didn't really want to meet anybody at that time? No, I think a lot of the stuff you can Google all happened after the fact, after we had left. A lot of those guys had gone out and, you know, "Hey, look what we found! It's this island!" And we're like, "Yeah, we've been there." So. It was one of those kind of feelings, but.
Podcast Host (23:04):
So, I guess, was it kind of a secret mission at the time? Until it was complete? Or was it just...
Fairly. Right? I mean, we weren't operating...
Podcast Host (23:10):
There was less internet back then, anyway, so...
Right, right. I mean, yes. It wasn't something that we advertised at all. We didn't advertise this as a success for...
Until now, I guess? I mean, in some ways, we didn't talk about it.
Podcast Host (23:19):
I was always like, "Yeah, that's... That's that"? And we just kind of moved on from it.
I will say one thing: that Eric is absolutely right, that the people trying to interact with us on our way out there, that was kind of concerning. We were definitely trying to be, to put it politely, aloof, and not engaging in that. But when we got back, I do recall some interactions with the locals. Matt. Matt was the contractor who logistics, primary support, in Dokuz. And when we got back, he put out a freshly-slaughtered lamb... or goat, I guess it was... For us. And there was definitely some locals who worked with him that we had had a chance to interact with. And I felt like there was not much at all out there, but a sincere amount of hospitality and gratitude from the few folks we met there who at least had a rudimentary understanding of what we had done.
Always. I mean, always, in every mission I've been involved with, it has been collegial, and the teams are very much supportive of each other, and even across countries. Very successful. It's always been.
Podcast Host (24:36):
Do you think the Russians, once they left, and then the US came in and started cleaning their mess up, do you think they cared?
Podcast Host (24:42):
I was going to say, I think they absolutely care. Because, concerned, and frankly embarrassed. I mean, this was them getting caught with their pants down in the BWC.
Podcast Host (24:52):
How does that mission... It's 20 years ago now, right, almost? How does that compare to some of the other things you've done with the Agency, or you with your career field? Does it stand out at all? Or is it just...
Oh, definitely. Yeah.
Podcast Host (25:04):
It's probably one of the bigger things. I guess, after that, it was just a glide slope down for me! But, no, no, I mean-
Peaked way too early.
Yeah, exactly. But, and for CTR, I think it's fascinating, if you kind of put the pics together of, you know, the Cape Rey, and then the work we did in [Chucha 00:25:22] and some of these other big projects, there's a lot of work that's been cleaned; the world's messes that have been cleaned up. So, absolutely. This was a big one, in that arena.
Probably in the top three of things I've done in my lifetime. Eric's absolutely right. There's such a panoply of unique opportunities to really make an impact, coming out of an organization like this. Demilitarizing Stepnogorsk, reorienting [inaudible 00:25:50] Camilla in Georgia. The bell got rung on the international stage by our partners, who we provided capacity to, for diagnostics and sequencing.
And, if we hadn't done that, our partners at Chulalongkorn in Thailand, most certainly, I presume, would've been able to do it themselves... with something, with some sort of resource, because they're extremely smart and driven professionals. But it was our assistance, our capacity of development that resulted in them being able to do that as quickly as they did. So, yeah. There's no shortage of "oh my" moments, out of an organization like this.
Podcast Host (26:28):
Hmm that's fair.
And going back... And I don't know if I can talk about it technically adequately; maybe you can. But when you said, "Would the Russians be bothered by this?" And we were able to characterize and sequence, and know that this is just not a normal strain of anthrax. And it was one of, it was one of the worst forms, and it had been available to them for weaponization and other purposes. So, yeah. That accountability is there, whether it's in the public record or not. It's still known by the DOD. So...
Podcast Host (27:03):
Well, gentlemen, that wraps up our time. This was fascinating. I'm so glad you guys were able to sit down and reminisce and talk about this particular subject, and the work you guys did there. You should be proud. I'm proud of the Agency, that we do this kind of work, and that you guys are still around to talk about it, and share the good, the bad, and everything in. So thanks again for taking the time, and maybe we're able to reach back out to you about some other projects throughout the Agency, and join us for another podcast! Thanks.