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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Did Congressman Lungren Ignore Potential National Security Threat Posed by AgraQuest's Importation of Foreign Soils?

Listen to Vanguard Radio tonight from 6 to 7 on KDRT 95.7 FM for more on this topic. Our guests will include Sandi Trend, mother of David Bell and Doug Haney. David Bell is scheduled to call in from Texas at 6:30. You can listen live on the internet by clicking here. Callers are encouraged to ask questions: 530.792.1648.

Last week, the Sacramento News and Review reported that an AgraQuest worker David Bell contracted a series of respiratory infections during his time working for the company in 1999. Now nearly nine years later, he continues to suffer from the debilitating illness.

The Vanguard raised questions about the environmental impact at the Kennedy Place location for AgraQuest. Questions were most specifically brought forth from Mr. Bell himself who informed the Vanguard that as an employee of AgraQuest he was told to dispose of waste material on a concrete culvert. The Vanguard also showed photographic evidence taken from several years later that suggests the possibility of contamination of the outside worksite.

In a follow up interview with David Bell, he warned us that the ventilation system at the 1105 Kennedy Place office building needs to be fully investigated as well due to the activities that took place in the building and the possibility that microbes ended up in the ventilation system.

During the course of the investigation into both Mr. Bell's health and the workplace conditions, the Vanguard has learned that AgraQuest may have been shipping soil and other biological samples into the United States on commercial flights without proper licenses. Moreover, David Bell reports that employees at AgraQuest at the time of his employment bragged about sneaking a green suitcase full of dirt past U.S. customs on a flight from Chile.

Doug Haney, an advocate for human and patients’ rights, who specializes in mold and microbe exposure, reported this to Congressman Dan Lungren in November of 2007 during a meeting with Gold River Field Office Staffers Alexandria Snyder and Michelle Panos. Congressman Lungren (R-CA) is the ranking Republican member on the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. Interestingly enough, in 2006 he co-authored the SAFE Act (Security and Freedom Enhancement Act) with Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-CA), a bill that was designed to improve security at U.S. ports.

Despite warnings about the possible implications from such lax customs handling in our war on terrorism, it appears at least from Mr. Haney's viewpoint that neither Congressman Lungren nor his staff followed through on these warnings.


There is a lengthy public record on AgraQuest's practice of importing soils and other biological agents into the United States from across the globe. In fact it is noted as a point of pride in the articles written about AgraQuest over the course of the past ten years.

As early as 1997, a Sacramento Bee article entitled, "AgraQuest Growing Its Own Success," reports that:
"They'll check out new samples of soils or plant roots or lichen arriving from across the globe."
In 2002, on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, the announcer reported that AgraQuest had gathered up to 20,000 samples of various soils and other biological samples.
"What they're looking for are microorganisms that secrete naturally occurring pesticides. To find them, over the past seven years they have gathered some 20,000 samples, like this dirt and some bits of leaves Marrone finds in an old stump here. Each sample usually contains many different types of microbes, which are grown up in the lab and tested."
The Wall Street Journal in 2005 reported:
"While many biopesticide makers tinker with microbes discovered on university campuses, AgraQuest is unusual because it searches fields and jungles for new compounds, often finding them in dead bugs. It's painstaking work... Over the past decade, Dr. Marrone estimates she's screened some 23,000 suspects. Tanks and storage boxes filled with rotting vermin line the hallways at AgraQuest's headquarters."
This particular article describes trips that AgraQuest's researchers take from around the world noting Honduras, Mexico, and other exotic locations.

What these articles do not discuss of course is how they got these samples into the country in those early days and whether or not they did so legally.

David Bell, who is now suffering from a string of respiratory illnesses that he believes stem from his work at AgraQuest became curious around 2004 or 2005 when he heard a story about a man arrested by agents at APHIS for illegally smuggling soil into the country.

APHIS is the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Their primary work is to defend America's animal and plant resources from agricultural pests and diseases. However, they also serve as a sort of regulatory agency which controls the animal, plant, disease, and soil specimens that come into the United States.

In order for companies to import such things as soil, pathogens, and microbes, they must be licensed by APHIS.

But according to David Bell, AgraQuest was not licensed in 1999 when he worked there.
"I called them [APHIS] up and asked them."
He continues:
"They told me they had no permit on file, that they would be contacting that company."
In fact, according to Mr. Bell, no APHIS permit shows up at AgraQuest until 2003 or 2004--a full six or seven years after they were reporting to have received soils from around the world in the Sacramento Bee article.
"Somewhere around there then a valid permit finally shows up in the record."
And yet Mr. Bell became aware in 1999 - at least four years before APHIS claims that AgraQuest had a valid license - that workers claimed they had smuggled soil into the country. In fact, the workers bragged about it.

How did David Bell find out?
"I asked them what the hell the green suitcase was for when they were unpacking the dirt out of it and that's when they were laughing about how they got it into the country."
So they told him.
"Usually they would take off on a company business trip and come back with it [soil] in a suitcase. They would check luggage full of dirt, soil."
Again, at this time, AgraQuest apparently did not have a license to do this according to APHIS. Moreover, they were able to basically sneak it past customs agents, at least according to what David Bell's co-worker Stephen Flannigan told him in 1999.

Doug Haney:
"While [David] was [at Agraquest], a Stephen Flannigan had brought in a suitcase of soils that he had obtained in a foreign country. At that time, I did not know what the countries were, nor did I know what the soils were, nor did I know what the microbes were, nor did anyone else know what the microbes were that were in the soils, because David indicated that Mr. Flannigan had told everyone, and was bragging to everyone, that he had taken those soils, on a commercial airplane, into the United States, over the border, and bypassed the inspectors. This is a clear violation of licensure - if there is no licensure - and laws pertaining to insects, plant life, and microbes."
Mr. Bell also described the contents of the soils based on his knowledge of the soils that he had examined:
"It could clearly have any kind of pathogens. Dirt and soil is a very dirty thing, especially when you are purposefully taking dirt with animal feces on purpose. Yeah, God knows what could have been in it, to be honest. Only AgraQuest knows that answer."
Where did the shipment come from?
"That particular time I believe it was coming from Chile."
There was another time apparently when their trip did not work out quite as well.
"I remember when they (co-workers at AgraQuest) went over to England, they were extremely pissed off due to heightened security having to take their shoes off, they couldn't smuggle any dirt on that trip. They were very disappointed about that, that was right about when that hoof and mouth disease was going on and they were making people disinfect their shoes. They were really disappointed that they couldn't bring the usual suitcase full of garbage back."

The idea that a company such as AgraQuest could simply slip soil and other potential biological agents containing microbes from around the world is alarming for those who might fear the United States' susceptibility to a biological attack.

This apparently is not a situation that simply ended with 9/11 and its tighter security measures.
"There was a gentleman coming in from Texas, who was detained at the airport for smuggling soils across federal lines."
Mr. Haney continued:
"That person was arrested, charged, and now [has] legal ramifications from that aspect."
But as Mr. Haney pointed out later in our interview, if that individual was caught smuggling at that time, you know that it probably was not the first time he tried to do so and you also know that others can do so or have tried as well. The difficulty in preventing the smuggling of a small bag of soil into this country - not to mention many other substances - that have the potential to be health threats is quite high.

Mr. Haney was alarmed.
"I felt with 21 years-plus of molecular sciences, there was a real gap of transfer of microbes into the United States, into laboratories and genetically modifying them, that there is a real possibility with terrorists taking those microbes, genetically linking those microbes, and creating a hybrid that could destroy a city very easily through disease..."

As the result of these concerns, Mr. Haney contacted Congressman Dan Lungren. Congressman Dan Lungren is the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. In 2006 he co-authored the SAFE Act with Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-CA), a bill that was designed to improve security at U.S. ports. Clearly this should have been an issue of interest to Congressman Lungren.

In November of 2007, Doug Haney, Sandi Trend, and several of their associates attended Dan Lungren's townhall meeting in Folsom, California. Several of them raised the AgraQuest issue during the course of the townhall meeting.

A few weeks prior to the townhall meeting Mr. Haney went about trying to set up a meeting with Congressman Lungren.
"I had called a couple of times to [Dan Lungren's] staff asking if we could have a meeting with him away from the presentation to inform him of what was going on at AgraQuest--the actual bringing in illegally, of the microbes, into the United States..."
Mr. Haney then met with Alexandra Snyder and Michelle Panos in Congressman Lungren's field office.
"I agreed to meet with Dan's [Lungren] staffer, Alexandra, the head of his staff in [Lungren’s field office]."
What did he talk to them about?
"I brought papers in and I discussed it at length with her, knowing at that point that Congressman Lungren was the [ranking member] of the Subcommittee on Homeland Security. I talked to her as to how someone could come across the borders, illegally bring in soils on commercial planes, and if they know anything about genetics... they could actually cause a hybrid that could cause major damage, illness, and death..."
He continued:
"We gave them documentation because we wanted to keep this low key as to not really put a scare into the community to get something done about it without tipping off foreign countries as to how dangerous this really could be."
At that time they promised to look into the situation, but according to Mr. Haney, "nothing" came of this meeting.
"I tried to contact Alexandra Snyder - a couple of times- months later. The instructions coming out of the meeting were that I would be contacted if my assistance was needed or just to find out more information."
But he heard nothing again.
"I tried to call about three or four months later because I had not heard anything from them, to check up and do another review of it. From that point on there was no contact whatsoever with Dan Lungren. So as far as health and safety, as far as national security involvement, I have heard absolutely nothing."
"Bottom line is because nothing is happening. A logical thing is that if you have a real loophole in something as vital to America as homeland security and you see that it has immediate ramifications you first would investigate it to find out how true it is..."
But again, nothing came of this meeting and Ms. Snyder never returned Mr. Haney's calls.

The Vanguard made several attempts to speak with Alexandra Snyder before talking to the media spokesperson in Dan Lungren's Congressional office. Unfortunately, we have not heard back from them at the time of press, however, we will add their response if and when we receive it.


It is worth noting that on Congressman Lungren’s campaign website they talk about his record on issues of terrorism and national security:
“Two years ago, Congressman Lungren authored the Safe Port Act of 2006, which received widespread bi-partisan support and was ultimately signed into law. This law represented a significant step forward in strengthening our national security from terrorists, but it was just a start. As a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Congressman Lungren has continued working with both Democrats and Republicans to strengthen our borders and pursue terrorists wherever they hide.”
It is unfortunate that the Congressman did not take a more proactive stance on what could really represent a serious threat to national security. When the terrorists of 9/11 attacked the United States they did not use conventional weaponry. Instead they were able to turn commercial aircraft into bombs.

What AgraQuest was allegedly doing was importing microbes into the United States through soil. That represents a potential threat on a number of levels. First, if they can slip soil into our country, others can do it. Second, if they can slip soil into our country, others can likely slip other things into our country. Are we really prepared for the level of ingenuity the next terrorist attack may take the form of? We were not prepared despite intelligence reports for 9/11. We worry about all sorts of things to do with national security and yet, when we see a glaring hole in our customs system, the first line of defense against a potential biological attack, it appears that our elected officials have done very little.

The Congressman can brag all he wants about working across party lines on strengthening our borders, but it appears he let a big potential issue slip right past him without adequate inquiry. That is a concern.

From the standpoint of Davis it is also a concern that AgraQuest, who apparently (stress on apparently) had no license during their early years was slipping foreign species of microbes into our community and then doing a number of genetic engineering and other manipulations on these microbes. All of this in the name of creating so called organic pesticides. Perhaps we ought to re-think what we call organic.

In the meantime, we remain concerned not only about the health of David Bell but the safety for our community and apparently for our nation. It is our hope that responsible leaders will look at this situation anew and plug whatever holes they need to in order to insure better security.

---David M. Greenwald reporting