Texas agriculture officials, U.S. Army at odds over military exercise
Bob Branson and Michael Pearson – 2001-05-07
Alarmed Texas agriculture officials are trying to dissuade the U.S. Army from putting the state’s $80 billion agricultural economy in peril from an unseen enemy the virus that has ravaged Europe with the dreaded foot-and-mouth disease.
News 8 Austin has learned that Texas Agricultural Commissioner Susan Combs, a Republican, has been in talks with the White House and the Pentagon trying to ensure the safety of Operation Roving Sands, an annual military exercise where mostly-American troops in Europe land on the Texas coast and march all the way to El Paso.
Her concern is that the boots of thousands of troops and tons of military equipment used in the fields and pastures of Europe may carry the foot-and-mouth disease virus to Texas infecting livestock and wildlife.
“To find that we were planning to bring equipment from countries with hoof-and-mouth, land them here on the Gulf Coast of Texas in the wet area which is where the virus breeds and lasts longer, drive them across the cattle country of Texas to New Mexico, I thought was ill-advised,” Combs said.
In the Britain alone, more 2 million animals have been destroyed in efforts to contain the foot-and-mouth virus, which causes painful blisters on the hooves and mouth of livestock and wildlife that eventually leads to weight loss and death. It is highly contagious among animals. The disease does not affect humans.
All told, nearly 25,000 military personnel, most of them Americans, will take part in Operation Roving Sands, an operation for training to stop military aggression. They are coming from Britain, the Netherlands and Germany. And even while tourists returning from Europe are having their bags searched and their shoes washed with bleach to kill any hidden virus, hundreds of military trucks and other military vehicles and 17 containers the size of semi-trailers are being loaded onto ships bound for Texas.
Britain, which has more than 1,500 cases of foot-and-mouth diseased, is sending 51 military vehicles, 30 trailers and four cargo containers of military equipment, along with 294 personnel. The Netherlands, where there are 23 cases of the deadly animal disease, is sending 293 military vehicles and 367 personnel. Germany, where so far foot-and-mouth disease has not been found, is sending 66 vehicles, 13 cargo containers and 295 military personnel. The remaining personnel are American soldiers stationed in those countries.
The Texas state epidemiologist also is expressing alarm. “We are certainly concerned about military vehicles and personnel, and certainly the awareness is heightened. But we have no direct control. All we can do is plead our case,” Terry Conger, a veterinarian with the Texas Animal Health Commission, said.
Agriculture, the second biggest industry in Texas, generates $80 billion a year. So Commissioner Combs has been pleading her case to the White House. When asked how the White House reacted, Combs said “Surprise, incredulity, couldn’t believe it. And I was thanked for giving them a heads-up.”
The military is aware of the risks. In an April 6 memorandum to “All military personnel,” federal inspectors issued new guidelines, including: “All military rolling stock …must be thoroughly cleaned.
“Military goods must be free of soil, manure and debris.
“Any military equipment used in FMD eradication efforts…will not be allowed entry into the United States.”
In Austin, the USDA’s Plant Protection and Quarantine head said the long sea voyage could help make things safer.
“The virus becomes ineffective after a certain length of time. It’s exposed to different ph levels, or things in a two-week voyage over here, the risk would just continually go down. And we will re-inspect at the port of entry and if there’s any soil will be refused entry, so all those things together I think we’re doing the best job we can,” Joe Davidson said.
If the virus were to get into Texas, domestic livestock would suffer, but the real threat would come from wildlife. There are nearly 4 million deer and between 2 million and 4 million feral hogs in Texas. They roam free and could shed the foot-and-mouth disease wherever they went.
“Once it got into the deer and or feral swine, they could serve as a reservoir for the disease and perpetuate the infection even after we eradicated it from our domestic livestock,” Conger said.
In spite of concerns voiced by the Texas Agriculture Department, the Army says Operation Roving Sands will not be changed from the way it is planned.
“That was maybe yesterday. I would take a look at today,” Combs said, adding Fort Bliss in El Paso, the headquarters for Operation Roving Sands, may soon announce it will have the Army use its equipment already in Texas and not offload any on ships coming from Europe.
The first ship with equipment is due to arrive in Beaumont from Germany on Monday, and Combs said that ship might not be off-loaded. Source: News 8 Austin | 24 Hour Local News | Austin, Texas http://www.news8austin.com/ Texas ag officials, U.S. Army at odds over military exercise http://www.news8austin.com/story.asp?ArID=5900